By Colby Itkowitz
Joe Sestak has pulled ahead of Pat Toomey after trailing for months in their closely watched Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, an independent poll confirms.
Democrat Sestak now leads Republican Toomey 44 percent to 41 percent with 15 percent undecided, a Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Tracker poll shows.
The numbers are the first from a nonpartisan source to confirm the race has tightened two weeks before Election Day. Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling last Tuesday put Sestak up by 1 percentage point. And two internal Democratic Party polls last week showed the Pennsylvania contest closing.
It wouldn’t be the first time Sestak surged with the finish line in sight. In two previous elections, when political pundits had counted him out, Sestak came from behind with just weeks to go and emerged victorious.
In May, the same tracking poll was the first to show Sestak catching and eventually surpassing U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary. A tracking poll shows who’s ahead and by how much each day until the election.
Many experts credited the Delaware County congressman’s victory over Specter to an electorate unhappy with the 30-year incumbent senator, not because they were overly impressed with the younger, upstart Navy admiral.
But maybe Sestak’s political prowess is vastly underestimated. He’s an unconventional campaigner and less-than-stellar orator, but he plays the part of tenacious underdog well.
“He’s off the charts in terms of his energy and work ethic,” Muhlenberg pollster Chris Borick said. “There is something to be said for sheer tenacity.”
Republicans are expected to make gains across the country this mid-term election by capitalizing on nationwide frustration with the slow pace of the economy. Toomey’s message of smaller government and fewer taxes seems to be resonating even in Pennsylvania, which tilts Democratic.
It’s hard to explain Sestak’s latest apparent comeback. There’s a sense that faithful Democrats are paying closer attention in the closing weeks as President Barack Obama crisscrosses the country making the case for keeping Democrats in charge.
And Sestak’s campaign appears adept at using an opponent’s own words against him in political TV ads. On air now is a commercial showing Toomey, a former Lehigh Valley congressman, saying his voting record is “hard to distinguish from Rick Santorum’s.”
“That Santorum ad is pretty potent,” Borick said. “Only a few years ago Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly tossed out Santorum for being too extreme.”
April Mellody, Sestak’s spokeswoman, said voters are beginning to see that Toomey is as well.
“Congressman Toomey is completely out of touch with this state. He wants to privatize Social Security, eliminate corporate taxes and ship jobs overseas,” Mellody said. “Joe understands Pennsylvania and knows that people here want practical solutions. Our message is getting out, and we are certain that the voters will know what’s at stake on Nov. 2.”
The Toomey campaign, which has enjoyed consistent good news from every poll until this week, is sticking with the message that has seemed to work.
“The polls are all over the place, with most of them showing a good-sized lead for Pat Toomey,” said Nachama Soloveichik, Toomey’s spokeswoman. “But the bottom line for Pennsylvania voters is a clear choice between more of the same reckless Washington spending and high unemployment with Joe Sestak, or a change in direction toward fiscal discipline and job growth with Pat Toomey.”
Sestak and Toomey debate for the first time this general election Wednesday night in Philadelphia and again in Pittsburgh on Friday. The goal for both, Borick said, is to drive home their most powerful messages in the final days.
“Sestak needs to ride the momentum of trying to paint Toomey outside the mainstream and hit that message in as many ways and in as many forums as possible,” Borick said. “Toomey has to show he’s in line with Pennsylvania on the main issues, like keeping the budget down and lowering taxes.”