Specter, Critz Results Send Mixed Messages for Democrats

Joe Sestak was able to knock off Specter but Democrats do have one bright spot.


Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter is the latest causality at the hands of frustrated voters targeting incumbents.

Specter lost to two-term Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary. Analysts say that Sestak's campaign commercial, showing footage of Specter saying he switched parties to get reelected, drove the candidacy of five-term Republican turned Democrat to the grave. [See where Sestak's campaign funds are coming from.]

"It was the most brilliant and devastating commercial since 1986," says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. "It showed Specter in his own words and the truth of it remained, he said it and that reinforced Sestak's nine month argument."

The commercial struck a loud cord with Pennsylvania voters. "Many of the electorate perceived [Specter] as being very evasive of where he stood on a lot of things," says Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "His switch appeared to be manipulative of the electorate."

Low voter-turnout also contributed to Specter's loss. "It has been clear from the beginning that the lower the turnout, the better Sestak would do," says Madonna. Only 24 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans showed up to vote Tuesday in their respective primaries. Tuesday's rainy weather also could have affected voter turnout. Pennsylvania voters tend to be older and have difficulty getting to the polls, according to the state's Election Commissioner Chet Harhut. [Learn more about Specter.]

Sestak will face a heated race against Republican Pat Toomey in November, in what will be a "super expensive race that starts today," says Shuster.

Toomey, a former Wall Street trader, small business owner, and congressman lost to Specter in 2004. Madonna says Sestak, a former Admiral with a three decades in the Navy, will have a good chance of beating Toomey in November if he rails against the establishment, congressional spending, and focuses his campaign on creating jobs."[Sestak] has to tell his narrative, his great narrative," says Madonna, referring to Sestak's naval career. "Toomey will have a bit more of a problem with his biography. He will have to defend his stint on Wall Street."

There was an important exception to the anti-establishment cloud hovering over this year's races. Democrats were victorious in a special election for the late Rep. John Murtha's seat Tuesday. The southwestern Pennsylvania district supported Sen. John Kerry in 2004 then backed Sen. John McCain in 2008. The region is thought to be strong indication of how voters nationwide will feel come November.

Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha aid, beat Republican businessman Tim Burns 53 percent to 45 percent in a race originally pegged by pollsters as a dead heat in the days leading up to the election. He will be sworn in Thursday.

But Shuster says Critz's win should come as no surprise. "They liked Critz and they liked Murtha," he says. "Because he worked for Murtha and because of the party hierarchy, he'll have a distinct advantage because he's familiar with all the right people."

Though Critz will take office immediately, he won't go long without a fight. He must face Burns again in November. "Historically, in Pennsylvania, the Republicans will vote fairly straight Republican," says Shuster. "But Democrats are more prone to switch." In that case, both candidates will have to target their campaigns at voters on the edge.

Corrected on : An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Pennsylvania Election Commissioner Chet Harhut.