Updated at 11:44 ET
Rep. Joe Sestak has defeated Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for the Senate seat Specter held as a Republican for nearly three decades, an upset reinforcing that this fall might be a tough slog for incumbents. Sestak was leading Specter with 54 percent of the vote to Specter’s 46 percent. There were 95 percent of precincts reporting and Specter conceded after several news outlets called the race. Sestak will face Republican Pat Toomey in November.
Specter, 80, has been a key ally of President Obama’s White House since being one of just three Republicans to back the $787 billion economic stimulus plan in February 2009. Ironically, that’s the vote that started to seriously harm his political chances as more and more Republicans defected to Toomey. He switched parties on April 28, 2009, declaring he’d looked at his “bleak” poll numbers and wanted to remain in office. “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter said then. He said he wouldn’t be a rubber stamp 60th vote, but became a reliable supporter of the Democrats’ agenda including health care reform.
But for all of his support from Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and the battleground state’s powerful Democratic machine, Specter was haunted by his past relationship with former President George W. Bush. Sestak ran a tough ad showing Specter and Bush side-by-side, and his team banked on Democrats having long memories that they’d been voting against Specter for years.In his concession speech, Specter thanked his staff, said it was a privilege to serve in the Senate, and that he’d continue to “work for the people of the commonwealth” in the “coming months.”
Obama and the DNC helped Specter with robocalls, mailers and phone banks. Sestak reminded voters on the trail that he bucked his party’s calls for him to drop the challenge, despite being recruited to run against Specter in a general election the first place.
White House and Democratic sources have told me in recent days they knew it would be a close race and that they expected to have a smooth transition to full support for Sestak right away to keep the seat in the party’s column come November. A Democrat close to the White House said it’s most likely that Obama advisers Patrick Gaspard and Jim Messina would reach out to Sestak to coordinate the formal endorsement.
“One of the things about primaries is when they are over parties tend to unite,” the source told me in an interview. After all, Obama made his biggest rival his secretary of state. Sestak, a former Navy admiral, backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. He told me in an interview Monday night he thinks the White House will come around quickly.
Sestak’s come-from-behind victory means that Specter, first elected in 1980, would leave the Senate in January.
The Republicans are refining their strategy with a different opponent than they at first expected, but are already calling Sestak “too extreme” for Pennsylvania, and using his endorsement from MoveOn.org as an example. Voters can also expect the GOP to exploit the Obama support for Specter.