Politics

Is the Pennsylvania Senate race tightening up? Are Democrats gaining momentum?

Jon Ward Contributor

Democrats very badly want Pennsylvania’s Senate race to be close. It’s the tip of the spear in their push this week to capitalize on a few glimmers of momentum around the country.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) pushed out two polls Wednesday that showed Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democrat, leading or just behind Republican Pat Toomey.

That garnered a headline on the Philadelphia Inquirer website that the race was “tightening.”

But both polls were internal surveys. And they contradicted the last few months of polling. Sestak has not led in a poll since late May, according to the Real Clear Politics poll tracker.

In addition, while the DSCC’s poll showed Sestak up 47 percent to 44 percent, and the Sestak campaign’s survey showed him down by one point, a Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday showed Toomey up by 10 points.

“The Democratic polls contradict not just the new Rasmussen poll but also 20 independent surveys conducted since August showing Toomey leading by margins ranging from 3 to 10 percentage points,” wrote Huffington Post pollster Mark Blumenthal. “It is certainly possible that the new Democratic results represent the sort of statistical bias we often see in publicly released partisan-sponsored polls.”

The truth appears to be, as it has been in most polls for weeks, that Toomey remains five or six points ahead.

“More data will clarify the Pennsylvania picture, but for now the three new polls narrow our standard trend estimate slightly, to a 6.4-point Toomey advantage (47.6 percent to 41.2 percent),” Blumenthal wrote. “With the two partisan polls excluded, Toomey’s lead would expand to about eight points (48.3 percent to 40.1 percent).”

The DSCC, however, maintains that Sestak is closing because of its mounting TV ad campaign. Is has launched a series of new ads in Pennsylvania since Oct. 5.

“New polling shows the more Pennsylvanians learn about Pat Toomey’s role pioneering derivatives on Wall Street and working in Hong Kong with billionaire Ronnie Chan, the more they learn he’s not someone who stands up for them,” said DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz.

Democrats said that a new ad that went up this week, paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), showed that Republicans were alarmed about the race.

But the NRSC said the ads were reserved in August, and that they can afford to put money toward Pennsylvania because Democrats are pulling money out of states like Missouri, where they had hoped Rep. Roy Blunt would be vulnerable to Democrat Robin Carnahan.

“In Pennsylvania for example, a state where Democrats won the last Senate seat by 18 points, Democrats have already spent over $3 million in negative ads against Pat Toomey yet he continues to lead,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh. “So we’re going to do whatever is necessary to help close door these final weeks and ensure a Toomey victory on November 2nd.”

Nonetheless, the broader trend of modestly positive signs for Democrats is legitimate, in the sense that controlling the Senate seems a bit more likely now than it did a few days ago.

“It would be dubious to assert that Democrats have some ‘momentum’ at the national level,” said Nate Silver of the New York Times. “Control of the Senate, however, will boil down to a relatively small number of races — possibly not more than a half-dozen. And in several of those races, Democrats have made small, but important, gains.”

In particular, Sen. Patty Murray has increased her lead over Republican Dino Rossi in Washington, and in Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk has failed to pull ahead of Alexi Giannoulias, despite the Democrat’s significant weaknesses related to his family’s bank.

E-mail Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter