Margaret Carlson: Why Sestak Trumped Specter

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter had the White House, the governor, and big labor behind him. Margaret Carlson on the keys to Joe Sestak’s upset victory—and the political ad of the year.

John Anderson, UPI / Landov

Of all the torments inflicted upon Sen. Arlen Specter, who's survived brain cancer and stage four lymphoma, surely waking up to an unseasonably cold rain on Election Day is among the worst of them. A bright, sunny day was what the 80-year-old Specter needed to pull out a victory against a late, surprising surge by a virtual unknown whippersnapper. Former Navy Admiral and junior congressman Joe Sestak, banished by his party, running on little but two stars and a smile against a senator of longstanding, was threatening to end the 30-year career of a Pennsylvania fixture.

What Sestak lacked in establishment cred, Specter had in spades: exclusive support from the president, vice president, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—whose word is gold in the state—and just about every other elected official, as well as labor to get out the vote. This bounty was the result of a backroom deal last spring. Specter, a Republican for nearly three decades, needed to switch parties to avoid certain loss to arch- conservative Pat Toomey, a former congressman and head of the Club for Growth, who'd nearly beat him in a primary battle in 2004.

Democrats promised the field would be cleared for him so he wouldn't face a primary. Marriages have been built on less.

What the White House needed was a 60th vote and Specter would be it. Democrats promised the field would be cleared for him so he wouldn't face a primary. Marriages have been built on less.

Benjamin Sarlin: A Big Night for the LeftJohn Avlon: Throw the Bums Out! Samuel P. Jacobs: Will the Insurgents Sell Out? Mark McKinnon: Three Election Lessons For months, all looked good. Specter relished the spotlight, and led his re-election race by double digits on name recognition and the power of the Democratic Party infrastructure. He was basking in that moment when you have finally made the decision to leave an unhappy marriage and are momentarily unaware of the problems likely to arise in a second. Sestak was unknown in most of the state and Specter had delivered the goods back home for more than a quarter century. President Barack Obama praised Specter for his act of "courage," in changing parties, raised money for him and said to a crowd at a rally, "I love Arlen Specter."

Sure Republicans were bitter, but that could only help Specter with his new base. Tea Party partisan Sen. Jim DeMint practically showed him the door, telling Specter he would be supporting Toomey, not him, in any Republican primary. GOP chair Michael Steele said, following Specter's exit, that the senator was "flipping the bird" to his party, trying to save "his political hide"—which is reason enough for Democrats to pray Steele remains chair for life. But nothing the Republicans threw at him hurt as much as what Specter himself said about his own motives: "My change in party will allow me to be re- elected, " a moment of candor that would become one of several powerful 30-second ads.

Democrats kept their word; everyone accepted the edict to vow fealty to Specter as their nominee. Everyone, that is, except a prickly Navy officer, the former commander of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, who was more accustomed to giving orders than taking them. Even a reported offer of a big job in the administration wasn't enough to keep him out of the race.

Still, Sestak trailed by double digits until just two weeks ago. His late surge owes a lot one of the most brilliant ads ever made, one vividly showing Specter's double life being warmly endorsed by two presidents of opposite parties. In it, we see Bush calling Specter a team player he could count on, clasping his hands; Sarah Palin and former Sen. Rick Santorum have cameos. In the other ad, we see Obama shouting out the love and intoning, "You know he's going to fight for you."

It was boffo television, played nonstop. Then came Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, which reminded people of that long-ago performance by Specter as he slammed Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Not too long ago, before Specter pledged Democrats his troth, Specter voted against the White House nomination of Kagan for solicitor general. Not surprisingly, he had a hard time finding takers for his reasons why she wasn't qualified for that job—but should be confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court.

In the end, Specter turned out to be a double incumbent in a year when it is better to be an incumbent of no party at all. Sestak held his fire until the end. By the weekend, Specter was begging for White House help and he got none, despite Obama being next door in Youngstown, Ohio and Biden in his backyard speaking at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By late afternoon Tuesday, NBC reported that the White House let it be known that "Arlen came to us, we didn't go to him."

It was mutually assured seduction and it failed. Specter did not go quietly into that good night, conceding in the shortest of speeches with no kind words for Sestak. He could have gone out gracefully but so few do—because losing is a little like dying for some. A few years back, Specter underwent extreme rounds of chemotherapy that left him gaunt and hairless. Senator John Sununu shaved his head in solidarity. But he never missed a vote. Most of the time Specter was a reliable Bush partisan, voting for his tax cuts and his war, which Pennsylvanians remembered Tuesday night. But he also fought Bush to get stem-cell research passed. As he did, he put an hourglass on the committee dais considering the legislation to remind each of us that our days were ticking by. And so have his.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. She was a columnist and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.