Primary may yet trip up Specter

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ask U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak about the wisdom of taking on the leading names of the Democratic Party to run against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, and he'll laugh.

"I very much have an appreciation for the Washington political establishment, but I don't think it's their choice," said Sestak, a two-term congressman from Delaware County. "It is Pennsylvania's choice."

Sestak, 58, is a retired Navy admiral-turned-politician. He's weighing a possible Senate run against Specter, 79, whose recent abandonment of the Republican Party drew promises of support from President Obama, Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Ed Rendell, all popular Democrats among the state's electorate.

Sestak is plumbing deep political waters. An appearance recently at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner for Allegheny County Democrats drew a warm response.

"I haven't made a decision yet" on the race, Sestak told the Tribune-Review.

That attitude pulled Sestak through his first election. Fresh from a 31-year Navy career when he announced his intent to run in the 2006 primary, Sestak said he was surprised when local officials asked if he had spoken with something they called "the D-triple-C."

"I didn't know what they were talking about," Sestak recalled.

When he finally did contact the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sestak said he was told they had a candidate. Sestak ran anyway and handily defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon in the 2006 general election.

Sestak appears to be gaining support to run against Specter, a five-term incumbent. On Monday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a coalition of former staff, union organizers and Democratic campaigners, debuted a "Draft Sestak" campaign fund. The online effort will raise money that would be signed over to Sestak -- who has a $3 million-plus war chest -- if he runs for the Senate.

Committee spokesman Adam Green said his group started the fund after reviewing an online straw poll in which about 85 percent of voters participating preferred Sestak over Specter (

Western Pennsylvania Democrats say they will weigh their choices carefully.

"The approach of the Democratic rank and file is, let's wait and see," said Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Burn.

State Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, and former Rendell aide Joseph Torsella of Philadelphia say they intend to seek the Democratic nomination. Pundits and politicos are watching Sestak.

"His name was always on the short list of those considering a run. Without Specter, he was at the top of the list, and even with Specter, he'd still be what I'd consider a formidable challenger," said pollster Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

Sestak said he'll make his decision in the next few weeks.

"I got into politics strongly believing it's about what you're running for, not what you're running against," Sestak said.

Sestak, a former defense counterterrorism expert, sponsored legislation to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but voted against cutting appropriations as a way to end the war. And although he supported the bank bailout and the economic stimulus plan, he recently voted against bills limiting executive compensation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce rated Sestak 60 percent on its issues in 2007, compared with 82 percent for Specter. The AFL-CIO gave Specter a 68 percent rating in 2007, and Sestak a 96 percent rating for his votes on organized labor's priorities.

Both Specter and Sestak rank health care reform high on their agendas.

Labor leaders are pressing Specter for his failure to support the Employee Free Choice Act, commonly known as card check. The legislation would have made it easier for labor unions to organize.

"Arlen drove labor's support away from himself over the last three or four weeks," said Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea. "The rank and file are mad, not only in Western Pennsylvania but also in Eastern Pennsylvania and Central Pennsylvania. They are upset."

Shea said it's too early to say which candidate organized labor would support, but that it would be a mistake to dismiss Sestak, who supports card check.

"I think his stock has risen since Specter came over to the D side, if for no other reason than he's getting a lot more play nationally. ... I think he's a strong candidate," Shea said.

"It's ironic," said Burn. "Sen. Specter left the Republican Party in part to avoid a tough primary. If Rep. Sestak gets in this, he's going to have a tough primary challenge."

Maybe, but others say the odds favor Specter.

"Sestak's got a lot going for him. It's not whether he's qualified; he clearly is. The bigger challenge he faces is this phalanx of formidable Democrats. He only has to take on the president of the United States, that's all," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst.

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