Philadelphia Metropolis


The Case Against Specter

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By Craig Dimitri

With just over two weeks remaining, the most intriguing race remains the contest for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. The incumbent is Arlen Specter, who has won five terms as a Republican, starting in 1980, but switched parties in April 2009.  He is running against U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak from Delaware County,

One important theme of Sestak's campaign is the assertion that Specter is not a genuine Democrat, and that he switched from the GOP solely to save his own seat.  Early polls for the May 2010 Republican primary indicated that Pat Toomey - whom Specter had barely edged in 2004, despite massive organizational support from the GOP - might defeat him this time.

G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young made The Case Against Sestak in a column in this space, outlining why Specter would likely survive this challenge, and face Toomey once more, but this time in the general election.

Arlen Specter 2.jpgI agree with the authors that Sestak has an uphill battle, and that Specter is likely to win.  Incumbents are difficult to defeat. Their advantages in name recognition, fundraising, constituent services and outreach, as well as organizational support within their own party, mean that any challenger is going to find dislodging any incumbent, to be an arduous task.  Moreover, Specter is an entrenched incumbent, one who has held his seat for nearly three decades.

Still, it seems to me, that Sestak's chances in the primary are greater than they might appear. And polls released this week show him closing the gap - he trails by around 9 points. Specter has several weaknesses, all of which give Sestak a fighting chance. Allow me to lay them out:

1)      Specter's long incumbency.  Paradoxically, Specter's nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate, and his advanced age of 80, might actually hurt his chances, as voters seem interested in finding new blood.

2)      Specter's newfound partisan allegiance.  Notwithstanding his remarkable resilience at outlasting generations of rivals in both parties, he has never run in a Democratic Senate primary.  The fact that Specter had survived past GOP primary challenges was powerful evidence that he might survive another; but we have no conclusive evidence that he could win a Democratic one.    

3)      The paucity of public polls.  We have become accustomed, in this digital age, especially after the 2008 presidential campaign, to free, sophisticated, daily tracking polls online.  But this is a state race, and polls are not being done as often and they become stale quickly.  Early polls gave Specter a double-digit lead, but that was mostly because Sestak was an unknown.  Now that the Democrat has gone up on TV with a biographical ad that has changed.  Sestak's potential to climb, as he becomes better known outside Philadelphia's suburbs, may take place under the radar.  Initially, Sestak's most difficult obstacle was attaining statewide name recognition, while running against one of Pennsylvania's best-known politicians.  But as he begins to air more ads, more voters will become familiar with him.

4)      The closed primary.  Specter may run well with independents who admire his centrist voting record, but they aren't allowed to vote in the primary.  The Democrats who will vote are likely to be the highest-turnout, most committed party members -and ones who have been voting against Specter in general elections for years.  Moreover, it's unlikely that Specter has been successful in persuading hordes of Republicans to switch parties to support his primary bid.

5)      There's still two weeks to go.  Specter has committed one recent gaffe, and might very well commit others. His misstep came on April 28, when he was quoted in the Allentown Call as saying:"I probably shouldn't say this, but I have thought from time to time that I might have helped the country more if I'd stayed a Republican." It was an unwise statement to make, only a year after switching parties, and in the midst of a contested primary in his newfound political home.  It gives new fuel to Sestak's charge that Specter isn't a bona fide Democrat.

 Conclusion: The odds remain against Sestak, but he is still very much in the race.


Craig Dimitri is a Montgomery County resident who writes about politics and public policy.  You can e-mail him

For those of you who missed Saturday's televised debate between Specter and Sestak, has produced a 10-minute highlight video that is appended below.



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