Specter Party Switch Fuels Senate Primary Fight For Seat That Aided Obama

When Vice President Joe Biden called Senator Arlen Specter this week to tell him of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Democrat used the moment to request another favor from the White House.

Specter asked Biden, a former Senate colleague, to spend 10 minutes chatting on his behalf on the radio with Michael Smerconish, the Philadelphia-based host of a morning talk show.

That Specter, celebrated a year ago by Democratic leaders after switching parties and giving them for a time a crucial 60th Senate vote to thwart Republicans, appealed for Biden’s help shows the strength of the anti-incumbent winds sweeping the U.S. -- and how close Specter is to becoming the latest victim.

“It is a real battle,” Specter, 80, told a group of union workers in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as he campaigned on May 10. “It’s been a rugged time, candidly.”

Pennsylvania’s May 18 Democratic primary pits Specter, first elected to the Senate in 1980 as a Republican, against Joe Sestak, a 58-year-old congressman in his second term. The vote follows the May 8 vote by the Utah state Republican convention to deny three-term Senator Bob Bennett re-nomination, and the May 11 primary defeat of 14-term West Virginia Representative Alan Mollohan, a Democrat.

Poll Results

Two surveys released yesterday showed a tight race. A poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, put Sestak ahead among likely Democratic voters, 38 percent to 36 percent, a swing from a 20-point Specter advantage in March among registered party voters. The May 3-9 survey’s likely-voter sample had a 7.9 percentage-point error margin.

A May 5-10 poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, found Specter leading among likely voters, 44 percent to 42 percent. Its error margin was 3.2 percentage points.

“There is an anti-incumbent feeling, a concern with Washington” nationwide, said Terry Madonna, the poll’s director. “In Arlen’s case, it’s compounded by the party change.”

Specter switched parties in April 2009, a decision he said based in part by his slim prospects of winning the Republican nomination in 2010 against former Representative Pat Toomey, a fiscal conservative. At the time, Specter gave Democrats the 60th vote needed to force Senate debate on bills Republicans wanted to derail, and President Barack Obama pledged to back him for re-election.

Specter now must persuade Democratic primary voters to both look beyond his ties to the Washington establishment and back someone they long viewed as the enemy.

Republican Opportunity

Republicans see an opportunity to win the Senate seat in November’s general election, regardless of whether a weakened Specter or Sestak, a candidate relatively unknown outside his Philadelphia-area district, wins the Democratic nomination.

Specter this week attributed his poll slide to a two-week advertising campaign by Sestak. The ads included one linking Specter to former President George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate.

Sestak’s bid to remind Democrats that Specter played for the other political team was inadvertently aided by Obama’s nomination of Kagan on May 10. Within hours, Sestak noted that as a Republican, Specter voted against her confirmation last year to be U.S. solicitor general.

Specter responded with an ad featuring Obama, in a September fundraising speech, encouraging Pennsylvanians to support Specter and praising him for casting the “decisive” vote for last year’s economic stimulus package.

“You know he’s going to fight for you regardless of what the politics are,” says Obama in the ad. “I love Arlen Specter.”

Funding Advantage

Specter outpaced his challenger in fundraising, collecting close to $15.4 million while Sestak took in almost $3.6 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Democratic leaders view Specter as their best chance of holding the seat in November.

“Specter still has a tremendous following among suburban Republicans,” said Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, one of more than 300 state Democratic officials backing the incumbent. “He’s a much stronger candidate because of that.”

Sestak rejected entreaties from party leaders that he drop his Senate bid, which he began planning before Specter’s party switch, and trumpets his resistance to the pressure.

“I stood up against the Democratic establishment,” Sestak said. “When they were wrong I told them they were wrong. I’m an independent-minded Pennsylvanian.”

Veterans’ Hospitals

Specter reminds voters of benefits he has funneled to Pennsylvania. At a May 10 rally in Allentown, he highlighted his work establishing hospitals for military veterans, helping steel workers get their pensions and controlling milk prices for farmers.

Michael Kovalevich Jr., a disabled veteran and Specter supporter at the rally, recalled asking him for help establishing a VA clinic in Bangor, Pennsylvania, six years ago. The project was approved within four months, Kovalevich said. “I was amazed beyond belief,” he said.

Sestak, in his speeches, stresses the need for change. “I very much appreciate the service of Arlen Specter, but it’s time to move forward to someone who didn’t stand alongside George Bush,” he said at a May 8 rally in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Biden, before making his radio call this week, campaigned in Pennsylvania for Specter last month, calling him “my single best friend” in Congress.

Sestak supporters dismiss Specter’s leadership support as stemming from political maneuvering.

“I assume that’s part of the deal,” said Julie Bakar, 51, at a Philadelphia rally. “That’s politics, and Specter is a consummate politician.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net.

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