MEDIA, Pa. — Democrat Joe Sestak — a son of the Philadelphia suburbs — needs the independent voters in his backyard as he campaigns for a Senate seat in a swing state that may tilt Republican this year.
Independents have been turning away from President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, frustrated with the economic downturn and administration initiatives, even in Pennsylvania where Obama won by double-digits two years ago. Sestak, a two-term congressman, has his work cut out for him.
"To vote for any of them right now, I'm not really sure I could. It's too early to say," says Tori Fisher, 45, an artist selling handmade jewelry at a picnic table down the street from Sestak's bustling campaign headquarters. [See where Sestak's campaign cash comes from.]
Fisher backed Obama two years ago and Democrats in 2006 but says "all of my friends feel frustrated" with the president's policies. "All of them could be doing a better job," she said of the Democrats controlling the White House and Congress.
On a nearby park bench, Albert Davis, 63, calls his previous support for Obama unfortunate. He faults the president and his party for their handling of the troubled economy, the soaring budget deficit and the new health care law.
"I thought he could straighten this country out," he says. "I may have been wrong."
Davis doesn't know how he'll vote this fall — "if I vote."
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1.2 million in Pennsylvania, independent voters, especially those in the so-called collar counties around Philadelphia, have proved decisive in elections in this swing state. They are seen as key to victory in the competitive Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman who once headed the anti-tax Club for Growth, and Sestak, who defeated Sen. Arlen Specter, a former Republican who switched parties to run in the May 18 Democratic primary.
A recent poll showed Toomey with a clear advantage among independent voters, and the same Quinnipiac University survey showed Obama's approval under 50 percent in the state. The president has lost considerable ground among Pennsylvania independents.
In 2006 and 2008, independents frustrated with then-President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq pushed Democrats to House and Senate wins across the country. Among the winners was a retired admiral and political novice named Sestak who captured a district that encompasses the one-time factory town of Conshohocken and the wealthy enclaves of the Main Line. This year, voters unaligned with a political party are disgruntled with the direction of the country, the Democratic-controlled Congress and Obama — and appear poised to punish the party in power.
Nationwide, a recent Pew Research Center survey showed Republicans with an edge over Democrats — 44 percent to 36 percent — among independents. At this point in 2006, independents backed Democrats 47 percent to 32 percent.
With independents so critical to victory, each Senate candidate is casting the other as an extreme ideologue out-of-step with voters on economic issues.
"Pat Toomey, someone I like, will always side with Wall Street and big oil ... but I'll stand up and fight for the working family and what they need," says Sestak, painting Toomey as far too conservative for the state. Sestak regularly hammers the former Republican congressman on his support for drilling in Lake Erie and his House votes on measures that included tax breaks for corporations.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate committee charged with electing Democrats, tags Toomey as "a former Wall Street executive who made his money trading derivatives" after a House stint in which he "not only racked up an extreme right-wing voting record, but he also championed freewheeling Wall Street practices."
Toomey, in turn, assails Sestak for voting for the Wall Street bailout, the economic stimulus, the health care law and cap-and-trade legislation that critics deride as an energy tax.