The anti-incumbent fervor of this election year looks like it’s about to take another scalp—five-term Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter. “There is a benefit in having stood up to the party establishment in an anti-incumbent year,” the challenger, Congressman Joe Sestak, tells me. “It's like John F. Kennedy said: ‘Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.’”
But Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary departs in important ways from purges that most recently claimed conservative Utah Senator Bob Bennett and West Virginia Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan.
First, unlike some centrist Democrats who’ve come under fire from the liberal netroots, like Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, Arlen Specter actually is the four-letter word the purists decry: a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only. (Republicans are even more vigilant hunting their so-called RINOs.)
Specter’s cause was not aided by his referring to the Alleghany Democratic Committee as “Republicans” at their Jefferson-Jackson dinner this past Tuesday.
Second, and more importantly, Joe Sestak is not a left-wing protest candidate. He’s a retired admiral representing the suburban swing districts outside Philadelphia. New polls not only show him surging against the 80-year-old Specter—they suggest that he might be a better general election candidate against right-wing Republican nominee Pat Toomey.
Toomey, the former congressman and chairman of the Club for Growth bills himself as a strong fiscal conservative, which he is. He is also a rigid social conservative, embodying the litmus-test approach to party purification—which could be a problem in a purple swing state like Pennsylvania. Against the gray figure of Arlen Specter, Toomey was poised to do well enough in the closed partisan primary this year that it drove Specter to cross the aisle with the White House’s encouragement. Neither Specter nor Toomey bet on Joe Sestak running a serious campaign.
I spoke to Sestak from the trail and asked him why he thought progressives were rallying around this career Navy-man’s campaign. “I sometimes say that everyone in the military are Democrats—they just don't realize it,“ he says. “I come from a background in the military where everyone had health care. We understood the value of education as a given. You learn a skill, earn a pension and go on to ‘Be all that you can be’…You invest in people. You hold people accountable.”
Sestak, who has a reputation for personal toughness and a demanding demeanor—in addition to a high-profile dismissal from the military, which has been the subject of a barrage of negative ads by Arlen Specter—seems to have been liberated by this opportunity to run an insurgent campaign against the Keystone State’s Democratic Party establishment. His policy positions are that of a fairly doctrinaire Democrat, though he’s quick to say that he longs for a return to Clinton-era fiscal responsibility, pointing out that he voted for the balanced budget amendment known as "pay-go" three times. But he’s not reluctant to offer criticisms of his party:
“My party needs to understand that business is not a bad word—especially when it has the word 'small' before it,” Sestak says. “That's where the majority of new jobs are created—in Pennsylvania and around the country.“
He acknowledges that “the Democratic Party has been perceived to have a deficit of credibility on defense issues since the Vietnam War, unfairly or not.” If elected to the Senate, Sestak would be the highest-ranking military veteran in either party. Alongside Jim Webb, he would present the Democrats with a much-needed infusion of military experience to bridge that credibility gap.
Sestak had been running a sleeper campaign, trailing Specter by as much as 30 points and carefully hoarding his cash until a three-week sprint before the May 18 primary. Shortly after the spending began, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Salena Zito—the oracle of Allegheny politics—began seeing a decisive shift among the grassroots, noting that on a recent drive through midstate she saw Sestak signs lining the roadsides but not a single Specter placard.
“Conservative Democrats will vote for Sestak just because he’s not Specter,” she predicts. Specter’s cause was not aided by his referring to the Allegheny Democratic Committee as “Republicans” at their Jefferson-Jackson dinner this past Tuesday night—“not once, but twice,” Zito told me. “That’s the sound of nail in the coffin.”
Despite the White House’s support of Arlen Specter, the president is unlikely to campaign in person for Specter before next Tuesday’s primary. And while the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment has been hostile to Sestak’s campaign, they are expected to fall in line with no small sense of relief if he prevails. In fact, Sestak was recruited to run for Congress by Rahm Emanuel when the current White House chief of staff was selecting candidates to take back Congress in 2006. Sestak beat conservative incumbent Curt Weldon to win the seat in this quintessential swing state, which encompasses the Mid-Atlantic to the Rust Belt.
“'Arlen Specter’ is the best Get-Out-The-Vote word for Republicans, and independents don’t trust him,” Sestak told me, hammering home his message of improved electability. “In a general election, I'll be able to talk about how I stood up to the party establishment and stood up for working families in Pennsylvania. I’ll have the opportunity to compare my career in the military against Pat Toomey’s time on Wall Street and his commitment to trickle-down economics, which failed under George W. Bush. It will be a great debate.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.