Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010

Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey vs. Joe Sestak, Tom Corbett vs. Dan Onorato

Pennsylvania is always a linchpin of the electoral-college map, so it's fitting that one of the first tectonic shifts of the 2010 election cycle took place in the Keystone State. After switching parties in 2009 to avoid a primary rematch with Republican Pat Toomey, Senator Arlen Specter was bounced in May's Democratic Party primary by retired Navy Admiral Joe Sestak, a two-term Representative running against the wishes of party bigwigs. Burnished by Pennsylvania's swing-state status and the boatloads of cash both parties have lavished on the race, the tussle between Sestak and Toomey is one of the marquee matchups this fall as Democrats try to maintain control of the upper chamber.

So far, Toomey, 48, has the edge. In a CNN/TIME/Opinion Research poll taken Sept. 17-21, the former investment banker and restaurateur held an edge of 49% to 44% among likely voters. The Republican holds commanding leads in the central and western areas of the state, and even a slight advantage (48% to 46%) in the hotly contested Philadelphia suburbs. Those results generally track with the trajectory of the race so far; according to Real Clear Politics, polls have so far favored Toomey by an average of 6.5 points. It's a sign of Toomey's strength that he has maintained the cushion despite Democrats' investment in the race. (Other indicators are the $10.3 million in donations he has raked in and the $4.6 million he still has on hand.) The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has ponied up $5.7 million for Sestak, and the party has trotted out two of its most powerful proxies, former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden (a Scranton native), to hit the trail on his behalf.

Sestak, 58, is an indefatigable campaigner who ran to Specter's left and cast himself as a party-bucking iconoclast. "I want to be a public servant, not a politician," he told the New York Times Magazine in an August profile. Beyond the campaign-trail boilerplate, however, Sestak has been a fairly reliable Democratic vote, backing his party more than 97% of the time — including on divisive issues like the Affordable Care Act and the Wall Street bailout. He backs cap and trade, abortion rights and same-sex marriage, as well as a repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. He also opposed the Iraq war and warns of mission creep in Afghanistan. Yet while Sestak isn't quite as outside the party apparatus as he would like voters to believe, nor is he the outside-the-mainstream candidate his opponents have sought to portray him as. "Congressman Sestak has adopted one extreme position after another," Toomey said in a Sept. 13 statement.

Toomey is facing similar allegations. After three terms representing Pennsylvania's 15th district, he became a conservative standard bearer during his stint at the helm of the Club for Growth, an antitax outfit that works to elect fiscal conservatives. On the campaign trail, he has inveighed against virtually every aspect of the Obama Administration's policy record, including health care reform, bailouts, government spending and the Recovery Act. Democrats have painted him as a virulent right-winger. "Pat Toomey is not only one of the most extreme politicians in Pennsylvania, he's one of the most extreme politicians in America," said Mark Nicastre, spokesman with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. In a state with 9% unemployment and a patchwork quilt of constituencies — from wealthy suburbanites to blue-collar denizens of the Rust Belt — both candidates are courting centrist voters by building their campaigns around themes of job creation and economic revival.

Pennsylvania's other statewide clash is similarly contentious. The race for governor pits Republican Tom Corbett, the state's attorney general, against Democrat Dan Onorato, the chief executive of Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh. Corbett has an enviable historical streak on his side: since 1954, the governor's mansion has switched parties every eight years. Pennsylvania's current governor, Democrat Ed Rendell — whose own poll numbers have slid — is stepping down because of term limits, and Corbett boasts a comfortable cushion in the polls. In the CNN/TIME/Opinion Research survey, he led 52% to 44%, a tally padded by his 53% to 37% edge among independents. Corbett, 61, also leads Onorato in fundraising, with $7.7 million on hand as of Sept. 13, easily outpacing the Democrat's $3.3 million. "Not only is [Corbett's] lead substantial, but his supporters are slightly less likely to say they might change their minds than are Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato's," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said after a Quinnipiac poll showed the attorney general coasting with a 15-point lead in late September.

To close the gap, Onorato has gone on the offensive, hammering Corbett for callousness toward the unemployed, flip-flopping on health care reform (by signing onto a lawsuit to overturn it despite praising aspects of the law) and opposing a tax on the extraction of natural gas from the state's Marcellus shale. In an ad scored with ominous music straight from a horror-movie preview, he paints Corbett — a former staffer for ex–Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge — as beholden to corporate interests. "Toxic Tom Corbett is only looking out for the oil and gas industry, not Pennsylvania taxpayers," the ad claims. A green-energy advocate who pledges to institute term limits in the state legislature, Onorato, 49, served as a Pittsburgh city councilman and Alleghany County controller before jumping to his current post. In a less rancorous election cycle, that record would be an asset. But with a disgruntled electorate more likely to blame the party in power, he, like Sestak, may have trouble convincing voters that he's not part of the problem.