Pennsylvania’s Primary: Good News, Bad News for Progressives

sestak winsThe 2010 Pennsylvania Primary had a lot of good news for progressive Democrats. The 18 May balloting saw Representative Joe Sestak take out five-term Senator Arlen Specter, just a year after the latter switched to the Democratic Party in the face of an assured loss in the Republican primary. And, the Democrats held the seat long occupied by the late Jack Murtha. On the other hand, the most progressive candidate in the gubernatorial primary, Joe Hoeffel, finished a poor fourth, and the winner, Dan Onorato, is not only less progressive, but starts well down in the polls against the Republican nominee, state Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Sestak’s win was overwhelming, notwithstanding polls that showed a dead heat on the eve of the election. He won all but three counties statewide, and only lost big in Philadelphia (Specter’s home base). His overall margin was 54 to 46 percent, which suggests that he picked up almost all of the large contingent of voters who were undecided at the end. Specter was hurt by his negative campaigning, in particular an attempt to raise doubts about Sestak’s naval career (he’s a former three-star admiral). On the other hand, Sestak’s attacks on Specter stuck: the decisive one simply showed Specter saying that he’d changed parties in order to get reelected.

Sestak is liberal, but not left-wing. His home district in the Philadelphia suburbs has a Republican majority and will probably elect a Republican to replace him. This is important as he turns to face the Republican nominee for the Senate, former Representative Pat Toomey. Toomey ran against Specter in 2004 and nearly beat him in the Republican primary. He is a right-wing Republican, comparable to former Senator Rick Santorum (defeated by Democrat Bob Casey in 2006). Toomey will be vulnerable to a campaign that paints him, correctly, as too far out for Pennsylvania, and Sestak is well-positioned to conduct such a campaign. The begin with Toomey up narrowly, but Toomey is well enough known statewide that he is probably near his maximum, while Sestak still has to make himself known to the rest of the electorate. Thus Sestak has much more room for advancement than Toomey.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, former congressional staffer Mark Critz held the seat of his late boss, John Murtha, against a determined national Republican campaign behind millionaire Tim Burns. Again, the polls predicted a tighter race than the actual results showed: Critz 53%, Burns 45%. At the same time, voters nominated each man to carry his party’s banner in the regular election in the fall, so a rematch is guaranteed in this socially conservative but Democratic district. Burns, however, had to stave off a strong challenge from Tea Party favorite Bill Russell, and he will thus have to tack to the right to attract those voters in November, risking the loss of moderates to Critz.

The gubernatorial primaries, on the other hand, resulted in victories for the state machines in both parties. The Republicans had gotten behind Attorney General Tom Corbett, and he had little trouble winning the primary. The Democratic leadership had opted to back Dan Onorato, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) Executive in a four-man race, and he easily outdistanced the field. The two most progessive candidates were Anthony Hardy Williams of Philadelphia and Joe Hoeffel, Montgomery County Commissioner; they finished third and fourth, respectively.

john-peeler.gifOnorato begins the general campaign substantially behind Corbett, and subject, moreover, to a pattern of party alternation in the governorship: the incumbent governor, Ed Rendell, is a Democrat who is finishing his second term.

Overall, though, reports of the demise of progressives are greatly exaggerated.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University

Published by the LA Progressive on May 20, 2010
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.