Huh? A competitive Pennsylvania Senate race?

    I awoke this morning to discover a world turned upside down.

    The Texas Rangers actually slaughtered the Yankees again last night, to go up three games to one? As Richie Ashburn used to say, “Hard to believe, Harry.” And Joe Sestak has actually slaughtered conventional wisdom by erasing Republican Pat Toomey’s seemingly impregnable poll lead in the Pennsylvania Senate race? That’s even harder to believe – yet it seems to be true. In two new polls, Sestak has even carved out a narrow lead.

    I had long assumed that Sestak, the upstart liberal Democrat running for office in a state suffused with anti-Obama anger, was the political equivalent of dead man walking. Is this a weird campaign season, or what?

    Pennsylvania’s story line had long seemed unshakable. Toomey, a doctrinaire conservative who would have a tough time winning a statewide race in any normal year (even Rick Santorum once said that Toomey was “too conservative” for Pennsylvania), was comfortably topping liberal Democrat Sestak in every poll since the spring, buoyed by the prevailing winds.

    But now we’re seeing the glimmers of a counter-narrative. Yesterday, Public Policy Polling reported that Sestak had somehow overtaken Toomey to lead by a percentage point, 46 to 45. Granted, PPP is widely described as a Democratic-friendly polling firm, but the thing is, back in August this Democratic-friendly polling firm had Toomey ahead of Sestak by nine points, 45 to 36.

    More importantly, the PPP findings were seconded this morning by the nonpartisan Muhlenberg College tracking poll. Two weeks ago, Muhlenberg had Toomey up by seven percentage points; today, it has Sestak up by three. In the words of Terry Madonna, the Pennsylvania’s top political analyst/guru, this amounts to “a stunning reversal” in a race that seemed to be cast in stone.

    Madonna told me today that he’d like to see more polls before he decrees that the conventional wisdom is dead;  he does his own survey work, at Franklin and Marshall College, and a new Qunnipiac poll is due tomorrow. I second his desire for more evidence – if only because Sestak has long seemed out of sync with the vibes of 2010.

    After all, a midterm electorate is typically older and whiter than a presidential-year electorate, Pennsylvania has one of the oldest populations in America, and its white seniors are ticked off at Democrats in general and President Obama in particular. Plus, the jobless rate has remained high. Plus, Democratic enthusiasm has been low. Plus, urban African-American voters would have to vote for Sestak, whom they barely know; plus, Obama isn’t on the ballot. Plus, Toomey is a sane moderate compared to some of the tea-party cartoon characters running for the Senate elsewhere.

    (My new favorite anecdote: Nevada’s Sharron Angle recently declared that Muslims have taken over the town of Frankford, Texas and imposed Islamic law on its citizens. The only problem with her declaration? There is no Frankford, Texas. What used to be Frankford, Texas was annexed by the city of Dallas, way back in 1975. When measured against the likes of Sharron Angle, Pat Toomey looks like Cicero.)

    So what could possibly explain a mid-October Sestak poll surge, at least to the point of making him highly competitive? It appears there are several factors:

    Unlike in 1994, the year of the Gingrich “revolution,” the 2010 Democrats have plenty of money. Via email appeals and other communicative means, they’ve been hammering their torpid base with the message that Toomey is precisely the kind of free-market Republican who helped precipitate the economic crisis, and who would make things worse once in office. The new polls seem to signal that this Democratic base is waking up – and, lest we forget, registered Democrats in Pennsylvania currently outnumber their Republican counterparts by 1.2 million.

    Secondly, even though everyone routinely disses the plethora of political ads on TV, they do seem to resonate. (Why else would candidates spend so much to keep airing them?) And Madonna believes that the anti-Toomey ads – some sponsored by Sestak, others sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – have been resonating, at least among potential voters not yet sold on Toomey.

    The generic Democratic message this year (to the extent that the Democrats have fixed on a message) is that a majority GOP would return America to the era of Bush-style free-market deregulation – in short, the philosophy that put us in the soup. And, as Madonna notes, the Sestak and Democratic TV ads have reminded Pennsylvanians that Toomey not only embraces this philosophy, he has also lived it. Toomey worked on Wall Street, sold derivatives (though not the kind that helped wreck the economy), and, as one Democratic ad has pointed out, he even worked in Hong Kong for a billionaire Chinese businessman. Indeed, China is a frequent bogeyman in 2010 political ads (note Sestak’s gong sound effect). By linking Toomey to China, Sestak and the Democrats hope to garner more support from organized-labor voters, who fume about jobs going overseas.

    One statistic in the new Muhlenberg tracking poll stands out: Toomey’s favorability rating now stands at only 34 percent – a 10-point plummet in the past two weeks. There’s no way to explain his drop without citing the Sestak-Democratic ad barrage; it has obviously been designed to sow doubts about Toomey and raise his negatives. All told, this is not dissimilar to what Sestak did early last spring, when he overtook Arlen Specter in a late surge propelled by TV ads, to win the Democratic primary.

    Still, I remain skeptical. Given the aforementioned political landscape, it still seems likely that Toomey will win Pennsylvania, and turn that Senate seat red. At the very least, however, he may have a tougher final sprint than many of us long assumed. Perhaps we’ll learn more tonight, when he and Sestak face off in a televised debate.

    Madonna said to me, “This is the weirdest political environment I’ve ever seen, from day to day. You almost don’t know what to say.” True that. But the upside is that, in a year like this, and with gyrating polls such as these, there is always something to say.

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