Republican-turned-Democrat Senator Arlen Specter is seeking his sixth term. He faces two-term Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak. The two are in a tight race.
When Pennsylvania Democrats head to the polls tomorrow, political junkies from both parties across the country will be watching. Republican-turned-Democrat Senator Arlen Specter is seeking his sixth term. He faces two-term Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak. The two are in a tight race.
Arlen Specter is in the run of his life. But he’s been here before. He says he has competed in 14 contested elections, and half of those were as tight as this one.
Last year, Specter switched parties after he voted for the controversial federal stimulus package, and when it became clear that his more conservative challenger, Pat Toomey, could defeat him.
Toomey came close to beating Specter in the 2004 primary.
But things haven’t turned out easy for Specter in the Democratic primary race.
Specter had a comfortable lead against Sestak in the polls until television viewers across the state heard this Sestak attack ad criticizing Specter’s switch:
“My change in parties will enable me to be re-elected,” says Specter in the ad.
And the ad’s narrator proclaims, “Arlen Specter changed parties to save one job: his, not yours.”
The ad shows George W. Bush praising Specter. Soon after its airing, Sestak began to surge in the polls.
Sestak is a tireless campaigner. He has held hundreds of events like this street corner rally, where just about a dozen supporters show up. His mantra is working families – Sestak is for them, and, he says, Specter is not.
“He voted four out of five times with George Bush,” says Sestak, “for the tax policies that actually benefited the wealthy, the multi-millionaires…. He voted for the economic policies, lock-step with George Bush and Dick Cheney that ran our economy to the ground. And then he said to the Republicans, ‘sorry, so long, I’m now a Democrat.”
So Democrats across the state are now in the awkward position of having to choose between a former Republican most have voted against for thirty years, and a Democrat they hardly know.
For voters like Richard Hackett, eating lunch at Reading Terminal Market, his choice is a vote against Specter.
“I found it rather dicey when he changed parties,” says Hackett. “It was very transparent why he did that. I didn’t like that. I distrusted him because of it. I mean, I think it speaks to the distrust people have for lifelong politicians.”
Sestak has defined himself as the “real” Democrat, forcing Specter to continually talk about how his parents voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And Specter, not Sestak, has the backing and funding of the party establishment, including President Obama.
On Friday, with just four days before the election, Philadelphia’s party leaders stood with the city’s black clergy to stump for Specter.
“Without the money that’s come to the state budget [from the Stimulus] to help us pay for our medical expenses, for our Medicaid and to help us with some of our school and education money,” said Governor Ed Rendell, “we would have had to lay off, throughout the state, 15,000 to 20,000 additional workers – teachers, policemen, emergency service workers.”
So don’t tell me that Arlen Specter didn’t create jobs by taking a risky vote, which led to his switching parties.
And because most of the state’s Democrats live in the Philadelphia area, if labor leaders and the black clergy get their people to the polls, it would benefit Specter. And he knows that.
“There’s no doubt that if we turn out our vote that I will be re-nominated,” says Specter. “And the city of Philadelphia is key, and the African-American vote is key.”
Bishop Vernetta Merritt, of Walking By Faith Baptist church in North Philadelphia, says Specter has brought home the bacon through a number of projects that helped her and her congregation.
“I’m planning on talking to my congregation,” says Merritt, “and my son is also the chief shop steward for TSA and I have a cousin who’s president of local 332. These These are all family members who are in charge of large groups. So together we can get the vote out and get Arlen Specter in.”
And it’s more than federal dollars. The other dollars that are important are what’s known in Philadelphia as “street money.” That’s the money candidates pay people to campaign for them and work the polls on Election Day.
When asked how much street money Philadelphia poll workers can expect from Specter, he had this to say: “Lots!!”
But will dedicated primary voters and party volunteers like Fernando Steward vote for Specter?
“People who think like me, now they might go out and support Specter as for getting their money on election day. But when it comes to pulling that lever, I think Sestak is gonna win.”
Even if President Obama is backing Specter and not the self-proclaimed true Democrat, Joe Sestak?
“Just cause he’s [Obama’s] backin’ him doesn’t mean he’s feelin’ him,” says Steward. “He might be doin’ it because its a political thing, but he might like this guy too. I think he does.”
Come Wednesday, whoever wins will have to start campaigning against a formidable foe. Republican Pat Toomey is likely the winner of the Republican primary. And the Democratic nominee will have to start re-filling their depleted coffers.