Democratic leaders to Sestak: lay off Specter

With a poll pitting the incumbent against a potential challenger, the DSCC makes its primary preference clear

Published May 21, 2009 8:30PM (EDT)

Hypothetical election contests are always interesting. Before they get into the race, candidates spend a while shadowboxing, trying to scare off opponents, hoard cash and generally look as strong as possible. That appears to be what Sen. Arlen Specter is up to in Pennsylvania, and he’s  got a crucial ally in staking out his newly-claimed turf: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The DSCC is the election arm of the Senate Democratic caucus (and, full disclosure, my former employer). When it comes to sorting out who gets to run for Senate, the chair of the DSCC -- currently New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez -- is the heavy. So it shouldn’t be taken lightly that the DSCC commissioned a poll pitting Specter against possible primary challenger Rep. Joe Sestak. The lopsided result -- a Specter lead of 56 percent to Sestak's 16 percent -- sends a pretty loud signal to the congressman. Remember, nobody made the party release these results, and indeed, if you want to get technical about it, the DSCC didn't actually "release" them; they just became public somehow.

Of course, just a couple months ago, Sestak was the DSCC’s best hope of mounting a credible general election campaign against Specter. But as is often the rule in these situations, the party is going with the incumbent, who’s viewed as a likelier winner. Menendez could scarcely send a louder signal to Sestak, at least not without decapitating a horse and doing some nocturnal breaking-and-entering.

DSCC Communications Director Eric Schultz points out that the GOP hardly even has a credible candidate yet, with only former Rep. Pat Toomey -- not exactly a moderate -- in the race. Still, Schultz’s preference was clear enough. “We believe it’s going to be Senator Specter. We believe that he’s well-liked amongst Pennsylvanians, and that he will both win a primary, should there be one, though we obviously prefer not to have any,” he told Salon. 

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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2010 Elections Arlen Specter D-pa. Pennsylvania