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By Jay Cost

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Keep an Eye on Joe Sestak

In two weeks, Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls for the 2010 primary election. Most analysts (myself included) have focused on the special election being held that day in PA-12, but it is worth keeping an eye on the battle for the Pennsylvania Senate on the Democratic side. There, Congressman Joe Sestak (PA-7) is looking to defeat Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, who is seeking his sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

This race has escaped attention in large part because Arlen Specter has had a huge lead in the polls. But that lead has been shrinking recently. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken early last month showed Specter ahead by just two points, down from a 19-point lead at the beginning of the year. A Susquehanna poll found Specter with just 42% of the vote, not a great place to be for an incumbent who has held a statewide office for 30 years. Most recently, the Allentown Morning Call tracking poll shows a tight race, 48-42.

Specter should be nervous about those numbers. His decision to leave the GOP largely escaped strict scrutiny in the mainstream media because he framed it as a principled response to the narrowing, shrinking Republican Party - a meme that journalists and politicos were making good use of a year ago. But this is bunk. Arlen Specter has never been a terribly popular politician in Pennsylvania. In his five previous electoral victories, he has only gotten more than 60% of the vote once (in 1998). Plus, his last contest, in 2004, saw him pulling in just 53% of the vote. Compare that to Republicans in other purple to blue states and it doesn't look all that good. In 2004 George Voinovich of Ohio won 64%; Chuck Grassley of Iowa won 70%; and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire won 66%. Susan Collins of Maine won 61% in 2008, a bad year for Republicans. Olympia Snowe of Maine won 74% in 2006, another bad year for the GOP.

Specter actually lost Democrats and Independents in 2004, according to the exit poll. What saved him were those supposedly intolerant Republicans, who went 84-8 for Specter in the general election. Therein points to the core challenge facing Arlen Specter, and why we can't write off Joe Sestak. Specter needs Democrats who have never voted for him to support him for the first time in two weeks.

There are two geographical dynamics that I would keep a careful eye on. First, watch metro Philadelphia. Now, obviously it's always important to watch metro Philly because it has such a large share of the statewide vote. But what is especially interesting about this contest is that both Sestak and Specter hail from metro Philly. My sense is that Specter will win the old Democratic constituencies - like labor unions and African Americans in the city - but Sestak should do well with newer constituencies - like upscale liberals in the suburbs whose parents were Republican. Specter will need a big lead coming out of this area to mitigate losses in other parts of the state.

It's also important to watch Western Pennsylvania, which time and again has almost been Specter's Waterloo. Rasmussen shows Sestak winning "conservative" Democrats by more than 20 points. Those voters are probably in the West. Specter got blown out in the West in the 2004 GOP primary, and he under-performed in the general election as well. Specter has never been terribly popular there, and at the time of his departure from the GOP, I speculated that his graceless exit from the Republican Party might have something to do with the fact that the GOP has moved West in recent decades.

Finally, we can't forget the intangibles in a year like this. In many respects, Arlen Specter has come to represent what voters find so noxious about politics these days. He's a careerist politician who has been out for his own interests while the country has drifted sideways. Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review summarized Specter's candidacy in this way:

Specter's never understood that he's his own worst enemy.

It isn't that he was a Republican who often voted with Democrats, or that he switched from Democrat to Republican to Democrat. It's that he is untrustworthy.

Politicians can survive the thin line between love and hate. But lose voters' trust and they lose votes.

Indeed. Pennsylvania Republicans stopped trusting him a long time ago, and if general election polls are to believed, Independents have done the same. That just leaves Pennsylvania Democrats - who historically have never really trusted him. That's why I think this race will be tight. Sestak has a good amount of money - $5.3 million cash on hand as of March 30 - and a simple, compelling message to Pennsylvania Democrats: you've never believed that Arlen Specter represents your interests in Washington, why start now?

-Jay Cost