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Specter of Defeat

Is the Senate’s most shameless hack unbeatable?

Just over a year ago, Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak was seriously weighing a Senate bid in Pennsylvania against then-Republican Arlen Specter, but he wanted one last word of sage advice. So he called up his former boss, Bill Clinton, for whom he’d served as director for defense policy on the National Security Council, and, according to Sestak, “he invited me over to sit down with him over at his home in Georgetown.” But the meeting didn’t go exactly as planned. “Just as I walked in,” Sestak says, “an aide came up and said, ‘Did you hear? Specter just announced he’s going to become a Democrat.’” After the initial shock, Sestak took a seat. “We talked about it and said, ‘Well, now we’re going to have to rethink this.’”

A rising star in his party who ousted a ten-term Republican in the moderate suburbs of Philadelphia in 2006—and then won reelection by nearly 20 points—Sestak had been courted to run for months by Senator Robert Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Senator Reid asks me all the time, once a week, ‘Are you recruiting him for Pennsylvania?’” Sestak recalls Menendez telling him. Suddenly, with Specter’s decision to switch parties, all such blandishments vanished.

But Sestak, a former three-star Navy admiral with a frightening work ethic—as a congressman, he has wowed his colleagues and constituents by running his office like a nuclear submarine, keeping it open seven days a week—wasn’t quite ready to give up. He thought he could win the seat without the party’s blessing; and it was easy to see why. “On paper, Specter seems to have many liabilities in terms of running in a Democratic primary,” notes Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. Whether it was his grilling of Anita Hill in 1991 or his vote for the Iraq war or his long-standing support of a flat tax, Specter had given liberals a lifetime of reasons to oppose him. In fact, within a week of Specter’s switch, an outraged amalgamation of progressive groups and blogs had banded together to conduct an online straw poll asking whether Sestak should run against Specter. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and, in early August, Sestak officially declared his candidacy.

But the endorsements and the funds never poured in, and Sestak has spent much of the campaign trailing by double digits. Now, with two weeks to go before the May 18 primary, polls show him pulling to within single digits. If he wins—and, with Sestak’s name recognition bound to rise as the election draws near, this is still a distinct possibility—it will be an impressive political comeback. If, on the other hand, he falls short, it will be an object lesson in just how easy it is to go from being a hot Democratic recruit to being political roadkill—through no real fault of one’s own.

From the start, Sestak faced problems on multiple fronts. Establishment Democrats, from Obama and Biden to Senator Bob Casey and Governor Ed Rendell, united behind Specter. Rendell predicted that, if Sestak ran, “he would get killed,” then quickly fade “into political obscurity.”

Labor, too, eventually lined up against Sestak. It was an unfair decision by any standard. Sestak had been an original co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act—which unions were eager to see pass—while Specter, facing the prospect of a hard-right primary challenge, had denounced the legislation on the Senate floor just a month before his party switch. Yet the AFL-CIO, rather than punish Specter for his stance, embraced the newly amenable senator. “He’s a very effective negotiator,” Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO, told The Hill. “He played a very helpful role, as I understand it, in the internal conversations of the Democratic caucus on the Employee Free Choice Act and helped move it forward with a number of moderates.” The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO officially endorsed Specter in March.

The biggest betrayal, however, came from the group that had seemed to be with Sestak from the start, and that could have provided the money and manpower to help balance out the Democratic machine and the unions: progressives. “The big surprise to me is what happened to the left wing,” marvels G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “Where are they? They’ve taken a hike.” Partly as a result, Specter has trounced Sestak in fundraising, garnering more than twice as much money in the most recent quarter. At a Sestak event I attended in April in Harrisburg—to which the candidate had traveled from Philadelphia in his Prius—he alluded to this aspect of the race. Speaking about his time on the ground in Afghanistan, he said, “We landed ... with this guy from the CIA who had this suitcase full of millions of dollars, because we were buying loyalty at the time and, uh, I could use that money in my campaign right now.” The small crowd of about 20 laughed nervously.

The first signs of a fissure between Sestak and the left came in August, when both candidates attended the progressive blog convention Netroots Nation, held in Pittsburgh. Even on such favorable turf, according to Salon, Sestak stuck to tired tropes and failed to make a big impression. “Just call—we try to get back to everyone,” he replied when asked how progressives might win more fidelity from elected officials. “I think you’re special. I think every American is special.” Specter, on the other hand, put on a show. Challenged by bloggers to disabuse Chuck Grassley of his wrongheaded notions about health care legislation, he invited audience members to come backstage to watch him dial his old pal and set the record straight.

Bigger than any showmanship, however, was the fact that Sestak wasn’t quite the liberal firebrand that progressive activists traditionally get excited about. Liberals wanted the story of the war hero who opposed the Iraq war. Instead, Sestak decided to go off script and support the surge in Afghanistan in 2009.

In a way, however, whether or not Sestak wins, liberals got exactly what they wanted. Specter, feeling the heat of his primary challenge, didn’t just promise to support the Employee Free Choice Act; he cast more than 95 percent of his votes with the Democrats after switching parties and was careful not to look like a holdout over health care. He even outflanked Sestak, opposing the Afghanistan surge. Now, Sestak finds himself in the awkward position of touting big Democratic bills like the stimulus and health care reform—bills that passed, in no small measure, because of Specter’s help. Following the appearance in Harrisburg, I went to see Sestak speak in Bethlehem, where, beaming about health care reform, he said, “This is what I went to Congress to do.” He quickly caught himself and added, “But there’s a lot more we can do.” For the second time that day, I heard a crowd laugh nervously.

Jesse Zwick is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.