The cake was baked in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race a long time ago.
This was to be the year for conservative Pat Toomey, the former U.S. representative and onetime president of the Club for Growth, to win statewide in his second try. He’d almost taken down Senator Arlen Specter in the Republican primary in 2004 and was ready to vanquish him this time.
That prospect scared Specter into the arms of Democrats, who welcomed him in 2009 with the promise that there would be no bullies in their clubhouse. Specter, 80, expected to be handed the nomination with a bow on top, then to show the 48-year-old Toomey who’s boss in the general election.
Enter Democratic Representative Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral who didn’t like being told what not to do. As he challenged Specter for the nomination, he was snubbed by fellow Democrats: How dare he muck up such a perfect deal, whereby Democrats got a critical 60th vote in the Senate and an easy win in the 2010 Senate race.
Specter led Sestak in polls for months, until those pesky voters started paying attention. Sniffing the smoke of the backroom deal, they balked. Specter, the anointed one, lost, big-time.
Now Sestak seems to be enjoying a similar kick in the homestretch of the general-election campaign. Two polls released in the last two days showed him ahead of Toomey for the first time -- up 44 percent to 41 percent in the Morning Call/Muhlenberg College daily tracking poll, up 46 percent to 45 percent according to Public Policy Polling, which in August had him down by nine percentage points.
Lesson for Others
Is there a lesson for Democrats in Sestak’s impressive if still incomplete comeback? Yes, though not one easily followed by others at this late date.
It’s taken some time, but it seems Pennsylvania voters are grasping that insider and outsider are more complicated labels than Democrat and Republican. Toomey, the out-of-office Republican, can be counted on to fight for the haves over the have-nots -- what an insider does. Sestak, the Democrat with a seat currently in the House, had the guts to challenge his party by taking on Specter. That made him an outsider, with all the attendant inconveniences.
While Democrats stopped shunning Sestak after he became their nominee, he still faced an “I-told-you-so” atmosphere as Toomey raced ahead in early polling. Sestak got the endorsements of independents such as former Senator Chuck Hagel and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. A sulking Specter waited until this month to endorse him and last week to appear with him.
No matter. Sestak’s campaign has reminded voters time and again that Toomey is too conservative for Pennsylvania, even taking into account the description of the state as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between. Pennsylvania elects moderate Republicans, such as Specter and former governors Tom Ridge and Richard Thornburgh. (Consider former Senator Rick Santorum the exception that proves the rule.)
A former derivatives trader on Wall Street before he entered politics, Toomey was more conservative during his three terms in the House, from 1999 to 2005, than 98 percent of U.S. legislators since 1995, according to an analysis by the website pollster.com, which relied on a computer analysis of roll-call votes called DW-Nominate. That score makes Toomey more conservative than Senator Jim DeMint, the Tea Party favorite; more conservative than Santorum in his day; and about equal to former Senator Jesse Helms.
Recession-scarred Pennsylvanians are more scared than analytical. After all, their state capital, Harrisburg, has hired attorneys for advice on seeking bankruptcy protection. And there’s nothing appealing about Toomey to those who work hard and play by the rules.
He’s consistently against financial regulation and for reducing corporate capital-gains and estate taxes. The AFL-CIO says he voted with its interests 7 percent of the time during his political career. He’s blasted Sestak for voting for “the $700 billion TARP boondoggle” -- also known as the bailout program, begun under President George W. Bush, that may have staved off a depression and might in the end produce a small profit for U.S. taxpayers.
Sestak’s message may finally be getting through: Far from an insurgent populist, Toomey is a fiscal elitist who has always believed that if government looks after those at the top, the bottom will take care of itself. As he said last night in a debate with Toomey, “It’s ‘We the people,’ not ‘We the marketplace’ or ‘We the corporation.’ That’s the difference in this election.”
At least until now, Toomey has appealed to voters simply because he’s no longer in Washington. (Give credit where credit is due: Unlike many of his big-talking colleagues, Toomey carried out his pledge to term-limit himself in the House.) But where you work matters less than whom you work for. Perhaps that’s the advice Sestak can offer endangered Democratic incumbents elsewhere.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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