Other than a self-professed love of their country, Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey have perhaps nothing in common. Which is why their battle for Pennsylvania isn’t just a fight for the next six years of our Senate representation. It’s a battle for the state’s soul.
Pennsylvania, classically a toss-up in the very blue Northeast, hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988. The last time we voted for a senator, Rick Santorum lost by almost 20 points. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama smashed Sen. John McCain by more than 10 points. With each election, pundits often claim it’s the Republicans’ last chance to redden the Keystone on a national scale.
This time, they may be right.
The beaten path to this Nov. 2 began in October 2006, when it was reported that embattled and corruption-ridden Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, representing Pennsylvania’s 7th District since 1987, was under investigation by the FBI. Weldon was being looked at for his involvement with a Serbian company formerly connected with mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic. Less than a month later, Sestak, a vice admiral in the Navy, would win the race by almost nine points, becoming the highest-ranking military member serving in Congress.
Around that same time, Pat Toomey, a former congressman from Pennsylvania’s 15th District, was still warming up his seat as president of the Club For Growth, a libertarian political action committee that advocates conservative principles. Toomey earned a 97 percent congressional rating from the American Conservative Union and a 13 percent lifetime rating on civil rights from the American Civil Liberties Union during his time in congress.
For nearly four years, Sestak and Toomey would have almost nothing to do with one another. Sen. Arlen Specter changed all that, of course. Admittedly afraid of facing Toomey in the 2010 Republican primary, Specter switched parties, thinking he’d win over Democrats for the nomination. Wrong.
The country’s general dissatisfaction with the Obama administration have kept Sestak down anywhere from 3 to 10 points throughout the fall. But the Democrat’s ad campaign has been fierce. An ad released in early October titled “Not On Our Side” features his new opponent alongside the same suspects he used to beat Specter: Sarah Palin and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Sestak has been surging ever since, even though the most recent polls by Muhlenberg/Morning Call show him trailing three to five points.
“Our message is really resonating with ordinary people across Pennsylvania,” Sestak says. “Working families have been slammed, and they’re looking for someone who will take a practical approach to solving their problems—not someone with a rigid mindset that brooks no dissent.”
And this is all in spite of Toomey’s own massive ad campaign, which spans Google ads and is backed by Palin’s endoresement and a war chest with contributions from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint ($309,000).
By most standards, Toomey holds an extreme viewpoint on financial issues, though he has managed to downplay many of them throughout the campaign. His answer to the 2008 market crash? Do nothing. That would have meant eight million more unemployed Americans, a GDP of negative six percent and, according to Toomey’s own words, a “harder down” than the current recession has brought. Lots of Republicans hold this same viewpoint now that Tea Party rhetoric is the rage d’jour, but the difference is that Toomey has always held this stance.
Sestak, on the other hand, has supported every major spending bill of the last two years. “The steps we took were tough,” he says, “but they were necessary to stop the bleeding and get our economy back on track.”
One of those bills was the Affordable Health Care For America Act of 2009, which he touted in his first campaign commercial of the general election, even referencing his own daughter’s brain cancer—and the Navy insurance that helped cure her. Toomey says he’d help repeal the bill and believes tort reform—which would put restrictions on patients’ abilities to sue their doctors—and competing across state lines is the answer to skyrocketing health-care prices.
These free-market competition ideas are the basis for most of the issues in which the candidates disagree.
Toomey’s plan on Social Security, for instance, would “require the private accounts to be professionally managed with diversified investments to minimize the risk,” he told the Scranton Times Tribune. “The money would be shifted to less risky investments as a person approaches retirement age.”
Pat Worrell of Action United, a low- and moderate-income Pennsylvanian community organization, doesn’t like that. She says his plan is essentially gambling with Americans’ money on the stock market. “If people want to take their retirement and social security and put it into the stock market that’ll be their choice,” she says. “But that’s no form of security at all.”
Toomey has admitted in the past that his Social Security plan would require additional borrowing, though says the U.S. is going to have to borrow to pay for Social Security to make way for the retiring age of baby boomers anyway.
Sestak says privatizing Social Security would add $4.9 trillion to the national debt. These numbers don’t seem to have a source, though it has been estimated that Sestak’s votes for the Obama agenda have added $3 trillion to the deficit as well. Sestak also says his opponent’s Social Security plan would force the U.S. to “borrow from countries like China,” though, again, Sestak’s votes have already made this a reality. The Democrat’s answer to paying for his own spending votes, such as TARP and stimulus funds, is “a return to the tax rates of the Clinton era” and an end to the Bush tax cuts.
Toomey did not return numerous requests for comment for this article.
Similar to the last week of the Sestak-Specter primary battle, this race is anyone’s game. This comes in spite of the opposition party, in this case the GOP, historically picking up seats during the first mid-term elections and President Obama’s approval ratings at their lowest average during any time in his less-than-two-year presidency.