Sestak bucks the odds, party regulars in U.S. Senate primary win

Victory over Specter sets up showdown with conservative Pat Toomey

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WAYNE, Pa. -- Two-term U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak likened his defeat of veteran Sen. Arlen Specter to his experience as an admiral in the Navy.

"In the Navy we're held accountable for our actions, and we should expect no less, no less, from our politicians in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Sestak said as he accepted the Democratic nomination late Tuesday night. "That accountability has been missing for far too long, and I want to help bring it back. And that's why I'm running for United States Senate."

Mr. Sestak celebrated the primary win with about 200 rowdy supporters in a small ballroom at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Delaware County. They hugged each other, mugged for television cameras and chanted "Joe! Joe! Joe!"

"This is better than winning the Super Bowl and the World Series on the same night!" said Sestak supporter Rich McEntee, 49, of Media, Delaware County, an engineer and graduate student at Villanova University.

Mr. Sestak had trailed by double digits in early polls but made up ground in the last few weeks, campaigning across the state and running attack ads that criticized Mr. Specter as a political opportunist who put his own livelihood ahead of constituents.

The launch of the latter commercial -- which portrayed Mr. Specter's switch from Republican to Democrat as a desperate political move of self-preservation -- was seen as the catalyst for the senator's downfall.

"This wasn't quite a referendum on Arlen Specter, but his presence was the dominant stimulus for how people voted," said Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "People have to get to know Joe Sestak a little bit more. This wasn't so much voters weighing in on him, but people who went to the polls either to vote against Arlen Specter or because they support him or are happy enough with him."

The moderate Specter has supporters in both major parties but -- it turns out -- not enough in either alone to carry him through a primary.

"People [who] vote in primaries tend to be more committed to the party and more ideologically driven. Here we had the most liberal Democrats," said Thomas Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Their choice was between a progressive, whose views are more closely aligned with their own, and a moderate who might have a better chance of attracting swing votes in the general election.

Their choice suggests they put ideology first.

The win sets up a general election face-off between the progressive Democrat and ultraconservative former congressman Pat Toomey, who is bolstered by the tea party movement. The candidates are diametrically opposed on core issues such as gay rights and immigration.

"I suspect it'll be nasty. Toomey will trot out some of the same things Specter did," including issues about Mr. Sestak's voting record and abrupt departure from the Navy, Mr. Baldino said.

The attacks began minutes after Mr. Specter's concession speech with a press statement from National Republican State Committee Chairman John Cornyn, who said Mr. Sestak is too liberal for Pennsylvania, that he votes lock-step with Democratic leaders in Washington and that he has supported energy policies that would reduce jobs.

Mr. Sestak jabbed back by intimating during Tuesday night's speech that Mr. Toomey continues "to back failed policies of George W. Bush" and "to let Wall Street do whatever it wants."

The primary race was nasty in its own right with attacks launched by both sides.

In the end, though, attacks on Mr. Specter's integrity appear to have carried more weight than assaults on Mr. Sestak's congressional voting record and his removal from a top Pentagon post for, according to reports, creating a "poor command environment."

He defied the state and national Democratic party to pull off this win in the face of pressure to bow out to clear the field for Mr. Specter.

A wave of anti-establishment sentiment helped carry him by drawing votes from Pennsylvanians dissatisfied with both incumbents and endorsed candidates, Mr. Baldino said.

"This is one of the races people all over the country are looking at to see if this is the anti-incumbent year," he said.

Mr. Specter isn't the first entrenched politician Mr. Sestak has unseated. In 2006 he defeated 10-term Republican incumbent Curt Weldon in the seventh U.S. House district.

Mr. Sestak, 58, of Edgemont, served 31 years in the Navy, on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and as the first director of "Deep Blue," a Naval anti-terrorism unit.

Mr. Sestak's win is viewed by some as more evidence of anti-incumbent attitudes nationwide. It comes on the heels of longtime Sen. Bob Bennett's stunning loss in Utah's recent GOP primary and Rep. Alan Mollohan's loss in West Virginia.

Several union members from New Jersey were at Mr. Sestak's primary night headquarters to celebrate his win. Earlier in the day, they had been working the phones and manning polling places.

"We definitely support his agenda. He's pragmatic, and he's for working families," said Karevin Barnes, 32, a New Jersey Realtor and member of the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

Elaine Poutous Pringle, 59, meanwhile, got involved in the Sestak campaign -- her first ever -- because of the congressman's interest in helping children with autism. Her support was fortified when she realized Mr. Sestak is "impressive, wholesome and a family man."

Ms. Pringle, who grew up in the Beaver Valley but now lives in Bucks County, said she made a lot of campaign phone calls to Western Pennsylvania.

"I told them, 'As one Pittsburgher to another, he's like us. He's one of us. Pittsburgh people are very warm and kind and neighborly, and they take care of each other. That's Joe, too,'" she said.

Tracie Mauriello: or 717-787-2141.


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