By Dan Hirschhorn
Going up against U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, one of the most skilled political tacticians in modern
Yet this is the fight that Joe Sestak, a retired Navy Admiral and second-term congressman from Delaware County, has decided to take on, risking a promising second career in politics along the way. He is running against the incumbent in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary, with both men seeking the Democratic nomination..
When Specter defected from the Republican to the Democratic Party last year with the support of President Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, any Democrat of consequence who had been planning a run quickly stepped away from the race.
But not Sestak. He immediately became Specter's biggest critic, sought to frame himself as an outsider who owed nothing to the party establishment and took on a tone that has only grown harsher with the passage of time. He immediately question exactly what Specter was "running for," later called the senator a "flight risk" and, Democrats agree, he has kept the pressure on Specter, forcing him leftward on a host of issues.
But pressuring Specter during the course of a campaign is a far cry from winning one. The political obstacles facing Sestak are formidable. To name a few:
Rendell's support for Specter has made fundraising more difficult, and the flow of cash into the Sestak U.S. Senate campaign coffers slowed toward the end of 2009. Support for Specter at the local levels has made turning out crowds for Sestak a needling challenge. And Specter's unmatched knowledge of the state's political landscape makes it nearly impossible to match his effectiveness on the campaign trail, even as he nears 80 years in age.
"If the governor is supportive of Senator Specter as the Democratic nominee," local Democratic political consultant David Dunphy said, "I think it makes it very hard for anyone else to raise the kind of money they'd need to run a truly competitive primary."
Sestak's campaign does enjoy some advantages. While Specter's approval ratings have dropped precipitously and are unlikely to rebound well over half of voters still didn't know enough about Sestak to form an opinion late last year. At this stage in the campaign, that lack of name recognition is an advantage. It allows Sestak to define himself in the minds of voters before others do it for him.
"Endorsements are nice to have, but remember Ed Rendell?" Sestak said recently, referring to the fact that Rendell wasn't the party's preferred candidate for governor in 2002. "I understand the dynamics of the establishment, but I really believe there's plenty of upside. Here's the upside. His electability number is in the 20s. To have 50 percent undecided after 30 years as a U.S. Senator, that's the real number. My challenge is to build name recognition, to be everywhere."
To that end, Sestak has already embarked on numerous tours throughout Pennsylvania, even looking to mimic Specter's famous proclivity for visiting each of the state's 67 counties. At every stop, he has sought the anti-establishment mantle, criticizing the party for "anointing" Specter without listening to voters first. He has found a following in the liberal grassroots. Any and every time Specter has come around to the more liberal side of an issue, Sestak's campaign has claimed Specter is "following Joe's leadership."
Sestak, 58, has a personal story to tell that could resonate with the voters. He comes from a working class family in Delaware County, gradated Cardinal O'Hara High School and was admitted to the U.S. Naval. He rose through the ranks to become a Navy Admiral and commanded ships in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s. Later, he served on President Clinton's National Security Council. In 2006, he became in highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress - and he won in a Republican district. He also has been a formidable fundraiser. He wisely spent almost nothing in winning a second term in 2008, which gave him respectable campaign coffers on which to build. While certainly not the potent fundraiser that is Arlen Specter, Sestak had $4.7 million in cash on hand last fall, compared to $8.7 million for Specter.
Working with Oxman
And while he had yet to hire an experienced campaign manager as of early this year, his campaign is working with the The Campaign Group, the Philadelphia-based media and campaign consulting firm headed by Neil Oxman, a longtime political adviser to Rendell who knows Pennsylvania as well as anyone in the business. Oxman is credited with electing Michael Nutter as mayor of Philadelphia and Rendell as governor, to name two recent clients.
Sestak can be expected to run a vigorous, well financed statewide campaign with effective me. When all is said and done, though,it may not be enough to end Specter's long Senate career. Specter will clearly have more money to spend - probably $2 for every $1 Sestak raises. He has the support of the state's Democratic political establishment, from governor on down. Expect him to go up with ads that seek to define Sestak before Sestak has a chance to do it himself. And expect him to call in chits from President Obama and ask him to be active in raising money and making endorsement pitches.
In the end, no one--even his political foes--is willing to bet against Arlen Specter.
Dan Hirschhorn is editor and publisher of pa2010.com, the state politics web site.