A pair of Pennsylvania races Tuesday figure to be the latest barometer of the country's anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood.
In the Democratic Senate primary, incumbent Arlen Specter faces voters for the first time since switching parties last spring. Two term Rep. Joe Sestak, has challenged the former Republican from the left, gaining support from Democrats in Pennsylvania and nationally who view Specter as a political opportunist. At the same time, voters in the southwest Pennsylvania House district that was represented by the late Rep. John Murtha will choose his successor. The swing district is seen as a possible bellwether looking toward November.
The final public polls in the senate race show the race as a dead heat, with a significant percentage of voters still undecided. In such a tight race, says Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, "it will come down to who can spend the most money in the final days leading up to the primary."
The Democratic establishment, including President Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, have lined up behind Specter. That, says Jamieson, could make a difference. "Who is going to turn out the [voting] troops better?" says Jamieson, "It's the Obama endorsed candidate."
But Specter, a five term senator, faces a primary electorate that has predominately known him as a Republican. "It's absolutely crystal clear that's what [this race] is about," says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. "Hard core Democrats say 'he's not one of us.'" The question for Specter is how many voters will move past that sentiment. Patrick McKenna, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party says skepticism over Specter's party switch is "reasonable. But I think voters also recognize that Specter has served Pennsylvania for 30 plus years."
Specter's party switch spurred the challenge from Sestak, a retired admiral. He "sees himself as a true Democrat as opposed to a flip flopper," says Scott Bennett, department chair and professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University. But voters will have to decide whether they want to take the risk of having a fresh face in the senate. "Specter is more readily identified with current problems in Washington," says Bennett. "But Sestak is one of the newest, most junior people in the house. Voters might think 'replace Specter and give up all that seniority in congressional committees.' "
The winner is expected to face former Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican who lost in a 2004 GOP primary race against Specter. Toomey leads both candidates in polls.
The race to succeed Murtha, who died in February, is seen as a test of Democrats' ability to hold competitive House seats in the fall. While Murtha had easily won reelection in recent years, the district went for Sen. John McCain by less than 1,000 votes in 2008 and for Sen. John Kerry by 51-49 over George Bush in 2004. It is a classic blue collar district, says Madonna, where "coal is king" and there are "a lot of conservatives, home town folk, and Reagan Democrats."
Democratic candidate Mark Critz was Murtha's long time chief of staff. Critz says he did not support the healthcare bill and that his top priority in Congress is creating jobs in Western Pennsylvania. Murtha's legacy, however, creates both benefits and problems for Critz. "He doesn't have quite the same baggage as Murtha did," says Madonna, referring to the 2008 Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Murtha traded earmarks for campaign contributions. But Critz doesn't have quite the same tenure either: "He's not Jack Murtha. He doesn't bring in the same pork barrel," Madonna says.
Republican businessman Tim Burns would be entirely new to Washington, representing his hometown region where he started his own pharmaceutical company. "[Burns'] is running on the 'local boy does good' argument," says Madonna.
It's also a region where new jobs are scarce and the population is dwindling. "Industries have been lost and people are very ripe for change," says the state's Republican Party spokesman Mike Barley.
A poll released Sunday showed the race was a statistical dead heat. Regardless of the winner, the race may just be a warm-up for November when the two men are expected to square off in a rematch for a full term.
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