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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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First Thoughts on Specter v. Sestak

Joe Sestak is going to challenge Arlen Specter next year in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary. Here are my opening thoughts on the race.

(1) Kyle has the word on an early Quinnipiac poll that has Specter up 50-21. I would not put much stock into this. Sestak is just in his second term in the House, which means he is virtually unknown in the state. He probably is not even terribly well known in his own district. The lack of familiarity can explain this deficit - and familiarity is something that can be purchased with television advertising.

(2) What Sestak is going to need is money. And then more money. And then some more after that. In fact, my sense is that a strategic pol like Sestak would only get into the race if he thought he could raise the needed cash. Money is how Sestak can make up for the familiarity that Specter has in the state. Toomey raised $4.5 million for his challenge in 2004. Sestak is going to have to do better. He surely will, already having about $3.3 million on hand as of April 1st.

(3) This is bad news for Specter. His departure from the GOP came at about the time that the media was talking about how small and narrow the party is. I don't think this was coincidental - I think it was timed to give Specter cover: the media would put the spotlight on the GOP rather than him. If they had looked closely at him, I think they would have found that he is a very weak candidate. Lots of moderates win Republican primaries in plenty of states. That Specter would surely fail to do this says more about Specter than the PA GOP. And that Quinnipiac poll shows Specter under 50% in a head-to-head against Toomey. Specter is weak; Sestak can win.

(4) We should not assume that the Democratic Party is any more natural a home for Specter than the Republican Party was. I'd suggest that it isn't. In fact, Specter is going to need to win the support of voters who have consistently voted against him for 30 years, whereas Pennsylvania Republicans would at least back him in the general. Switching parties to save one's skin in a primary battle is just not done - and it is an inferential jump of enormous proportions to conclude that Pennsylvania Democrats will back Specter simply because he has switched the "R" to a "D." The fact that Specter is one of (if not the) first to try this maneuver suggests just how tricky it will be. It's also a testimony to just how much water he had drained out of the pool with the Republican electorate.

(5) Suppose Sestak raises the cash. What's his angle? I think Specter has provided him with a great valence issue - i.e. one that divides the electorate by 90-10 or even 99-1 rather than 50-50 or 60-40. That is: "Why shouldn't Pennsylvania Democrats demand a real Democrat?" If the considerations in point (4) are indeed on target, this would be a great way for Sestak to exploit the opening.

(6) This is good news for Toomey. If Specter loses the primary, the race becomes an open seat, which improves his chances. If Specter wins, but Sestak puts up a spirited fight, the negativity of the final weeks should knock Specter down a peg. Plus, Specter would have had to spend a good deal of his cash.

(7) If it turns out that Sestak defeats - or nearly defeats - Specter in the Democratic primary next year, I do not expect us to hear the line we heard about the PA GOP. We won't hear how the PA Democratic party is too narrow or ideological to support a sensible moderate, etc. etc. etc. For the Beltway punditocracy, all analysis must flow from the broader meme. No exceptions, which is why Specter's departure was interpreted in reference to the "GOP is shrinking, narrow, and gross" narrative. The meme on Pennsylvania is that it is trending blue (inaccurate; it hasn't budged in 50+ years), so a Sestak victory will be interpreted as a sign that Pennsylvania just wants a more liberal Democrat. When you think about this, it makes little sense: how can the GOP reject Specter because of decline and the Democrats reject him because of expansion? But that's how the kind of conclusion you draw when you're afflicted with the Swamp Fever.

-Jay Cost