Commentary Magazine


Bellwether Battle: Sestak vs. Toomey

With the need to explain his vote against Obama Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan when she was confirmed as solicitor general, and yet another tracking poll showing him losing even more ground to challenger Rep. Joe Sestak, Sen. Arlen Specter has officially been declared “toast” by leftist Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch.

Bunch is right about Specter being ready for a shmear of cream cheese or butter, but he failed to note the news that supporters of the incumbent must regard with special dread: a new Rasmussen poll indicates that Sestak will be a stronger opponent for Republican Pat Toomey in the fall. In the first tracking poll matching the two Democrats against their all-but-certain Republican opponent in a month, Sestak gained strength as Specter continued to lose ground. A month ago, Toomey led Specter 50 to 40 percent. The latest numbers show the margin now to be 50 to 38. While the same survey showed Sestak trailing Toomey 47-36 a month ago, a new poll shows the race to be a virtual standoff, with Toomey holding only a 42-40 lead.

Wavering Democrats who never liked the idea of the former Republican being their nominee were told by party bigwigs that Specter was their only hope to hold the seat in November, since Sestak was too weak to beat Toomey. But if Specter’s incumbency is a weakness rather than a strength in a general election, then liberals won’t hesitate to abandon him next week in droves.

These numbers just confirm what Bunch and just about everybody else who isn’t a Specter staffer have concluded: the incumbent is finished and Pennsylvania will have one of the most competitive and clearly ideological battles for the Senate in November.

Most Pennsylvania Republicans have been thoroughly enjoying Arlen Specter’s difficulties in convincing his new party’s voters to embrace him. After decades of being represented by a man who always put himself on both sides of every big issue, conservatives, who came close to knocking off Specter in a 2004 GOP primary, are getting a great deal of vicarious pleasure from Sestak’s successful challenge to a Democratic establishment that embraced the slippery incumbent with the same ardor that George W. Bush and Rick Santorum backed him six years ago. But with Sestak pulling even with Toomey in a head-to-head matchup, conservatives need to start thinking clearly about the liberal former admiral.

In the past decade, Pennsylvania’s Senate races have generally been won by whoever could claim the center. But this fall, there will be no race in the nation that presents a starker choice between the parties. In all likelihood, the matchup will feature two candidates, Toomey and Sestak, who represent the conservative and liberal wings of their parties respectively. As a man who won a seat in Congress in 2006 as an anti-war candidate, Sestak may well be able to mobilize the suburban liberal base of the Democratic Party even if he leaves urban minorities cold. And we can expect the liberal-media attack machine to go all-out to tar Toomey as a right-wing fanatic. In response, the stalwartly pro-Israel Toomey will have the chance to hold Sestak accountable for his very shaky stand on the Middle East since the congressman backed a J Street letter on Israel rather than one endorsed by the mainstream pro-Israel AIPAC. And Sestak has never backed away from his appearance in 2007 at a fundraiser for the pro-Hamas CAIR’s Philadelphia chapter.

The point is, once Specter is done, conservatives will have to stop cheering for Sestak and start taking him seriously as a formidable and dangerous opponent.