PA-Sen: Joe Sestak Goes for the Jugular Against Pat Toomey

Pennsylvania is one of those states in the industrial Midwest where the public mood is incredibly inhospitable to Democrats. At the same time, the Democratic enclaves around Philadelphia and its suburbs could boost statewide candidates if they manage to hold serve elsewhere. The Senate race is intriguing for how Joe Sestak is running against Pat Toomey – painting him as too extreme for the state and comparing him to the likes of the state’s former conservative Senator, Rick Santorum.

Polling shows the race close, but with a consistent high-single-digit lead for Toomey over Sestak, a Congressman and former Navy Admiral. There’s a lot of material available on Toomey, a former Congressman and the recent chair of the Club for Growth. He’s managed to hide in the weeds relative to other tea party favorites like Christine O’Donnell, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, but Toomey would be one of the most reliable conservatives in the entire Senate. He has a career as a derivatives trader, in particular innovating the practice of municipal interest rate swaps, which has devastated towns and cities all over the map. His record in Congress clearly favored deregulation and privatization at every opportunity, and sat to the right of Santorum’s record. He has consistently believed that deregulation was responsible for economic expansion. He basically wrote the Commodity Futures Modernization Act before it caught fire in Congress. He believes that FDR prolonged the Depression. He to this day supports privatization of Social Security, and he says he would have voted against a Chinese currency bill which was co-authored by a Pennsylvania Republican and supported by the majority of the state’s GOP caucus.

How is someone with a record this out of touch with where Pennsylvania is as a state on the verge of becoming their next Senator? Jesse Zwick says he’s boring:

It was during Toomey’s run for Congress in 1998, and even more so during his closely contested but successful fights to defend his seat in 2000 and 2002, that Toomey learned to hone his discipline and perfect his political pitch.

In many ways, Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District had come to mirror the state as a whole. The cities of Allentown and Bethlehem bestowed the district with a slight Democratic edge, but a growing white-collar population outside the city limits was steadily supplanting the region’s working-class, heavily unionized roots. To win, Toomey would have to play up union antipathy in the suburbs while preserving a pro-worker image among the district’s still sizable blue-collar population — and that’s exactly what he did.

“He’s labeled ‘Wall Street’ and he is,” grouses Ed O’Brien, the union leader who challenged Toomey for his House seat in 2000 and 2002. But try as he might to make the race about Toomey’s financial-sector roots, his support for a regressive flat tax, and his disregard for worker safety regulations, O’Brien couldn’t make the label stick.

“The thing of it was that he was able to convince people he was a moderate and make them leery of me,” O’Brien adds. “I was against this, that and that. He called me puppet of trial lawyers. He had more money from the trial lawyers than i did!”

Sestak is trying his best to drive up negatives against Toomey and expose him as a Wall Street lapdog and extreme-right Republican. Essentially he’s going to the well again with a tactic he used to defeat Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania primary. Then as now, Sestak had a measurable deficit until one ad shook up the race. Clearly he wants this to be that ad. It has all the earmarks: a spartan soundtrack with no music, the repetition of Toomey’s statement about his voting record being “pretty hard to distinguish from Rick Santorum’s,” and visuals that match up Toomey with others on the far-right like Sarah Palin.

Toomey saying “I would support legislation in Pennsylvania that bans abortion, and I would suggest penalties for doctors who perform them” is the only substantive legislative piece in the ad. Sestak is also trying to use the Chinese currency bill, enormously popular in Pennsylvania, to throw Toomey on the defensive.

But basically, Sestak is trying to paint Toomey as unacceptably conservative. In past Toomey campaigns for the House, that hasn’t worked. We’ll see if Sestak can close the gap in the final weeks.

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David Dayen

David Dayen