Sestak Surging From Behind (Again) — Will It Be Enough?

October 22, 2010 4:30 am

Something very odd is happening in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Just two weeks ago or so, Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey seemed the odds-on favorite to pick up the open seat of Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, who had lost his Dem primary to Rep. Joe Sestak in a revolt against Specter’s party-switch. This would have quickly returned the seat to GOP hands, after Specter’s nearly 30 years as a Republican Senator were interrupted by his party switch. But suddenly, there’s a real race again.

Right after the Democratic primary, Sestak enjoyed an initial bump, and took the lead against Toomey. But then various factors set in — notably the general Republican gains in the polls around the country, and Sestak having to awkwardly deal with questions about an attempted job offer from the White House to get him out of his Dem primary challenge against Specter.

Soon Sestak and Toomey began to tie, and then tie some more. Soon enough, Toomey took a definite lead, and held it throughout much of the summer and early fall.

But now that’s all beginning to change.The TPM Poll Average currently gives Toomey a lead of 47.0%-44.1%, on the strength of previous surveys where he had a stronger lead — the most recent polls tend to be much closer.

In a lot of ways, this resembles Sestak’s sudden surge in the final weeks of his primary against Specter, after the incumbent had enjoyed wide leads right up until things suddenly changed in that home stretch. But will it last? And what’s causing it?

Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College and a noted analyst on Pennsylvania politics, explained to TPM that the race has become very close for a variety of reasons. Generally speaking, Democratic voters are starting to become more engaged, narrowing the enthusiasm gap. In addition, Sestak’s own position has begun to improve among key groups, such as independents and his own party’s base.

“Typically, we love to go and say there’s one or two things that matter. This matters or that matters. In reality, a lot of things matter,” said Madonna. “And it’s often three or four little things. We’re dealing with a slightly more enthusiastic Democratic electorate, a slightly higher proportion of Democrats for Sestak, and a slightly better situation among independents.”

One also has to wonder if this very quirky and memorable ad, in which Sestak says that he has had to work hard to clean up the mess that Republicans have left behind — comparing it to cleaning up his dog’s excrement — has had an effect:

Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t know how much, if any, effect this ad is having on the race. But it really is a great ad, one of the best of the cycle — summing up a message that practically every other Democrat has struggled to communicate effectively.

If Joe Sestak wins this thing, a whole lot of other Democrats will wish they had his dog — and her “messes,” too.

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