The Specter of Defeat

The Specter of Defeat
By: Gregory Gethard
Friday, August 21, 2009


With challenges from the Left and Right, Arlen Specter’s days in politics may be numbered.

Has Arlen Specter met his political demise?

It’s beginning to look that way. As he seeks reelection to the Pennsylvania Senate, Specter is locked in a furious campaign fight on both his left and right flanks. It’s a challenge that may soon become too much for even this ultimate political shape shifter and survivor to overcome.

In its most recent survey, Rasmussen Reports found that Specter was trailing Republican rival Pat Toomey by 12 percent. But that’s not even the worst for the Republican-turned-Democrat. Specter may not even survive the Democratic Party’s primary. The Rasmussen poll says that Specter is up by 13 percent over Congressman Joe Sestak, a Navy veteran who has become extremely popular in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. In June, that number was close to 20 percent. Sestak also picked up momentum last weekend, as he clobbered the incumbent at a straw poll held at Netroots Nation, a gathering of liberal progressive bloggers.

According to experts close to Pennsylvania’s political scene, Specter’s decision to support the stimulus package, and his resulting decision to switch parties, may have done him in. “Some people are certainly irritated by Specter crossing party lines,” said Steven A. Peterson, the director of Penn State-Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs. “There’s certainly an element of that.”

On top of his departure from the Republican Party, Specter recently has drawn even more criticism from the Right due to his support of the so-called “public option,” which has become the backbone of the Left’s plans to overhaul the country’s health care system. Specter has hosted many town hall meetings that have been filled with feisty opponents of health care reform. Famously, Specter said the protesters “were not representative of the American people.” This despite another Rasmussen poll finding that over 50 percent of respondents were now against the Democrats’ health care plan.

But while Specter has adopted some of the Left’s positions, he still isn’t trusted by the Keystone State’s liberals. That has given his opponent Sestak’s campaign more than just a little hope. Sestak is known for his energy: His campaign touts the fact that he introduced more legislation than anyone else in the Pennsylvania delegation and that he’s also reviewed an estimated 12,000 constituent case files this year. He’s well on his way to setting up campaign headquarters in all of the state’s varied counties. And, next to Specter, he’s certainly capable of casting himself as a new voice.

“Whether you agree or disagree with him on his positions, people want someone who is honest who they can believe, who is going to read legislation and listen to people,” said Gary Ritterstein, a member of Sestak’s communications team. “At the end of the day, people want someone who puts principle over policy.”

Despite these advantages, Sestak is fighting an uphill battle. Specter has been in office since 1980, giving him incredible visibility throughout the state. This year Specter has been constantly in the limelight, particularly after his defection to the Democrats. Sestak simply does not have the statewide visibility that Specter does.

“I do know that [Sestak] is a fighter and a hard campaigner who is willing to say what he means,” Peterson said. “He could come across as a fresh face. But before he does that, he has to convince people, and make people aware of him and where he stands. His main challenge is to get people to recognize him.”

Sestak may have a puncher’s chance against Specter, but it’s the conservative Pat Toomey who is poised to deliver a knockout blow. A former congressman from the Lehigh Valley, a collection of exurban cities and towns that are suburbs to both Philadelphia and New York, Toomey nearly defeated Specter in the 2004 Republican Senate primary.

Toomey’s also a former president of the Club for Growth, a free-market group that promotes limited government and fiscal responsibility. As one would expect, Toomey’s message has focused on Specter’s support of policies that would increase the federal bureaucracy.

“I think that there’s a lot of people in Pennsylvania very concerned about government spending and bailouts of the banks and auto companies. People think that Washington needs to reign itself in if the economy is ever going to get back on track,” said Nachama Soloveichik, the communications director for the Toomey campaign.

In addition to grabbing a lead on Specter, Toomey’s views have mirrored the nation’s current milieu. The bloom has certainly come off of President Obama’s rose: A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that his approval ratings have rapidly dropped to 50 percent. And if Obama-mania continues to wind down, that could bode well for Sestak – and for Republicans across the country.

“When the country faces economic problems, the party of the president tends to take a hit as people get upset with him. The Democrats are taking something of a hit, Obama, specifically. And other Democrats inherit that negativity,” Peterson said.

But, if nothing else, Specter has proven that he’s quite capable of staving off sure defeat. The Specter campaign has brushed off the difficult poll numbers, insisting that the campaign is still in its earliest throes. And Specter’s defeat to Sestak at the Netroots Nation contest, his spokespeople say, is nothing to worry about; many in attendance had stated to cast their votes before Specter had a chance to make his remarks.

Peterson also said that, while the polls do reflect the views of voters as they currently stand, it’s still a long way from November. “People are expressing concerns about Specter, but I expect to see gap close as election comes,” Peterson said. And while people still take a gloomy view of the economy, things could be different on Election Day. That could play right into Specter’s hands.

“As the economy begins to come back, the party in power becomes more popular. And if the economy is showing signs of improvement during the time of the election, that’s a hidden advantage Specter has,” Peterson said. “That is, if he gets the nomination in the first place.”

In late April, Specter tried to read the tea leaves. He thought that his support of the bailout would prevent him from winning the Republican nomination. However, becoming a Democrat overnight hasn’t been so easy, and he’s now facing a plucky primary challenger who has yet to back down. And if he does hold onto the nomination, he still has to face Pat Toomey and the party that launched him into the national spotlight.

Specter has to hope that his fortune changes soon. Otherwise, the political future that he sought to assure himself this April by switching political parties will prove very short-lived indeed.  

Gregory Gethard is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.

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