Can The Democratic Party Save Arlen Specter In Tuesday’s Primary?

May 12, 2010 9:04 a.m.
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As the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary heads into the home stretch — and with the challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, catching up in the polls with the incumbent, former Republican Arlen Specter — can the party establishment deliver for Specter despite lingering voter distrust with his party-switch, in light of the help he has given to pass crucial Democratic bills in Congress?

In advance of the May18th primary, the Democratic establishment is turning out in full force for Specter, doing the typical things: phone-banking and door-to-door-canvassing and are planning a big get-out-the-vote operation for Tuesday itself. And Specter has the support of some heavy-hitters, with both the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO having supported him, along with the whole party establishment in vote-rich Philadelphia.

As Greg Sargent reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is now putting money into the race, helping to pay for Specter’s new ad featuring footage of President Obama. As Greg points out: “national party money is being spent to prop up an incumbent who was a Republican for most of his career — and to help him defeat a longtime Democrat.”In a year when there is significant anti-incumbent backlash, it’s not clear having the party apparatus behind him will deliver the votes specter needs. Political science professor Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College told TPMDC that at this point the race is a genuine toss-up, though the momentum has clearly been with Sestak. For Specter to blunt Sestak’s surge, Madonna said, he will need the Democratic machine to get out the vote in Philadelphia.

“On another level, what will the party and union endorsements mean?” Madonna asked. “He has the entire infrastructure of the party at the top level in his camp. He’s got the party and the unions. Will they deliver? At the voter level, at the grassroots level, is where I’m not convinced he can move them.”

Specter spokesman Christopher Nicholas told TPMDC that the Specter campaign and the Democratic Party will get out their voters. “We are putting together a top-rate, top-notch turnout program in every corner of the state, with help from the Democratic party, and obviously from our own campaign,” said Nicholas. “And the endorsements we’ve had from local Democratic leaders, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the state party, all come into play as we enter the final couple days of the campaign.”

A Democratic source in Pennsylvania told us: “Everyone expected the race to tighten. It’s not surprising. Clearly the most recent ad featuring Sen. Specter with George Bush and Rick Santorum has had an effect.” The source added that Democrats will get behind whoever the nominee is in the end. But the source also pointed out that Specter’s endorsement by the state party was not simply a product of top-down opinion from the leadership, but was a vote conducted by members at the state party convention: “I would say that that was reflective of the support that Sen. Specter has throughout communities in Pennsylvania.”

The latest polls sure have the race all tied up. Quinnipiac has Specter ahead 44%-42%, with a ±3.2% margin of error. Franklin & Marshall has Sestak up by 38%-36%, with a ±4.9% margin of error. And the Muhlenberg daily tracking poll has it tied at 45%-45%, with a ±5% margin of error, after Sestak had previously been ahead for the last few days. The TPM Poll Average gives Specter a very narrow lead of 43.6%-40.9%, with Sestak clearly rising up in the last few weeks.

So where will Specter find his votes?

“He [Specter] will win African-Americans. The question is how many in the city of Philly will vote,” said Madonna. “The city of Philly is key because it’s the largest Democratic municipality. You’ve got the Democratic organization, they’re supporting him – Mayor Nutter, the chairman of the [Philadelphia Democratic] party, Congressman Brady.”

In addition, Madonna said that Specter could do well with relatively conservative Democratic voters in the rest of the state: “There are a larger number of them who are undecided than liberals or moderates, and he’s doing better with them than Congressman Sestak.”

Specter’s lingering problem, Madonna said, is that a number of voters still don’t trust him as a Democrat. Madonna said that “by far the most effective” TV ad so far was Sestak’s ad that replayed video of Specter’s past support of George W. Bush, Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin. “I think it’s just extraordinarily effective,” said Madonna. “And Specter’s countering it with a pretty effective commercial with the president [Obama]. That’s a very very good commercial, obviously trying to counter the stuff that he’s not a real Democrat.”

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