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Campaign 2010: Democrats at War

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By Dan Hirschhorn

With only a few weeks primary voters go to the polls, Pennsylvania Democrats find themselves embroiled in two bitter statewide primaries, as their Republican rivals prepare to cruise through May 18 with hardly a bruise to show for it.

Much ink has been spilled over the contentious U.S. Senate primary between incumbent Arlen Specter and Congressman Joe Sestak, a race that polls showed was beginning to tighten slightly in the wake of a Sestak TV advertising blitz. Their much-anticipated televised debate Sunday brought what has long since been a character race into open view, giving voters who hadn't been paying attention a brief but enlightening look at just how much political distaste these two harbor for one another.

But voters are also just beginning to tune into the race to succeed Gov. Ed Rendell, with a four-way Democratic primary that increasingly looks like a two-man contest between Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Philadelphia state Senator Anthony Williams.

With May 18 fast approaching, here is a brief look at where things stand.


When Joe Sestak emerged as the vocal and fierce challenger to the Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, many political watchers expected a primary that would stretch the longtime incumbent to the limit and prove one of the toughest obstacles of his political career.

Until recently, conventional wisdom was that Sestak's campaign had stalled, with his fundraising lagging and a campaign organization that often struggled against the Specter's tactical attacks. Specter had succeeded at keeping the focus of the campaign off  public policy issues and his long voting record as a Republican. Instead, in his campaign and in his TV ads, the incumbent has presented himself as a true-blue Democrat.

That perception was amplified by the first and only statewide, televised debate between the two, during which Specter deftly and repeatedly pressed Sestak on the circumstances of his exit from a high-profile Pentagon job. A number of reports have indicated Sestak was stripped of his command because of his leadership style, though Sestak and his supporters say it was because he pushed unpopular moves to trim the size of the Navy fleet.

Arlen Specter.jpgBut it was premature to count Sestak out, even with only a few weeks left before the May 18 primary. Recently, a small but growing body of polling data indicated that  Sestak's TV campaign--run by the same longtime Rendell consultants who helped elect Michael Nutter as mayor of Philadelphia --was beginning to have an impact. The 20-point deficit Sestak faced for months was turning into a more manageable 9-point spread, with 11 percent of the voters undecided.

Whether Sestak can close the gap between now and May 18 may have less to do with him than with just how much damage Specter has sustained in an anti-incumbent environment unfriendly to his kind of political triangulation. But if Specter accomplished anything in Sunday's debate, it was in demonstrating his toughness as a political fighter. If Democratic primary voters are pragmatic, opting for the most skilled candidate to carry the banner against Republican Pat Toomey, Specter will have won his stay of execution.



Dan Onorato had a plan, and he stuck to it. Spend two years building a campaign infrastructure on the ground. Raise a couple truckloads of money. Then deploy that fortune on the airwaves in the closing weeks before May 18 to buy the kind of name recognition needed to break away from the pack..

In early May, there was little reason to doubt the plan was working to a tee. His advertising had reached a point of saturation. A couple of months after the four candidates were stuck at about 10 points a piece, Onorato had surged to a 33-point lead, according to a Muhlenberg College tracking poll. Auditor General Jack Wagner and Montgomery County's Joe Hoeffel appeared to have stalled, with little campaign cash to speak of and the name recognition they had hoped to enjoy from previous statewide runs never realized in any public polling.

Dan Onorato.jpgTwo weeks out, Anthony Williams seemed to be the only viable threat to Onorato's nomination hopes. A few wealthy school-choice advocates from the Main Line bought Williams a seat at the table after he got into the race late, pumping $1.5 million into his campaign in a matter of weeks. That allowed him to go on the airwaves just a week after Onorato.

By Monday, Williams had aired the first negative ad of the campaign, challenging Onorato on the economic revitalization legacy that has served as the foundation of his political sales pitch. But without some help in dragging Onorato down from his other opponents, it may very well prove to be too little, too late.

Should Onorato prevail on May 18, he'll await a comfortably ensconced Republican nominee in Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is expected to waltz into the nomination without exerting much of the way in political energy--or cash

And the only question for Corbett is just how strong his own political persona will prove to be. A prosecutor who has made a name for himself by crusading against political corruption in Harrisburg, Democrats are looking for any and every chance to paint him as an opportunist using his office for political gain. Corbett may have handed them a short-term gift in that endeavor when he joined in a lawsuit seeking to block the new health care reform law.

But when jobs are what voters care about the most, the only thing for sure is that the election will start anew on May 19.


 Read: Campaign 2010: Looking at the Numbers

Dan Hirschhorn is the editor of, a Web site covering state politics.




Masthead Photo: Joe Sestak (left) and Arlen Specter

Photo 1: Arlene Specter

Photo 2: Dan Onorato







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