It was clear what the two candidates in the Pennsylvania Senate debate Wednesday night wanted to emphasize about the other. But Democrat Joe Sestak was able to do it with much more flair and creativity than his opponent, Republican Pat Toomey.
Toomey, a former congressman who retired from the House in 2005 after abiding by a self-imposed three-term limit, hammered Sestak for being a liberal tax and spender who has supported all of President Obama’s most unpopular policies.
Sestak was equally relentless in painting Toomey as a Wall Street toadie. But Sestak also played up his career in the Navy, and deftly associated Toomey with Tea Party candidates such as Christine O’Donnell while seeking to appeal to Tea Party voters himself with the repeated use of phrases like, “We the people.”
Toomey seemed to have trouble connecting when he punched back, and even at one point played into Sestak’s hands. “As you might have heard in Joe’s commercials, I worked on Wall Street,” he said, laughing awkwardly. An AFL-CIO spokesman remarked within minutes on Twitter that Toomey’s comment would soon appear in a TV attack ad.
Sestak has come from several points back to close the gap in the most recent set of polls, putting the race back in the competitive category after a long stretch where it appeared that Toomey might run away with it.
The Democrat, who has served only two terms in Congress after a naval career of more than 30 years, seemed to sense his momentum, while Toomey looked frustrated with Sestak’s theatrics.
For example, when Toomey was asked whether former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, he ducked, saying only, “Whoever’s endorsing me in this campaign I’m grateful for.”
Sestak, speaking at times in a tone of voice that seemed as if he were telling a bedtime story, passed up his opportunity to criticize Palin, and instead pivoted to hit three separate talking points in rapid fire succession.
“I have respect and I understand the anger of the Tea Party. I appreciate their activism,” he said. “What I’m most concerned about is those extreme candidates that are actually taking advantage of the extreme fringe of the Tea Party.”
Sestak talked of “those that are running with Mr. Toomey, Ms. O’Donnell next door for example,” and said she “actually thinks there can be a state established religion,” referring to comments by the Senate Republican candidate in Delaware on Tuesday that suggested she does not think the First Amendment established the separation of church and state.
Sestak then said that another of Toomey’s “out of sorts ideas” was to favor a zero percent corporate tax rate, a position that Toomey does not actually hold, according to Politifact.
“If it’s a program for the people he’s against it. If it’s a program for the corporation he’s for it,” Sestak said.
Sestak said later in the debate: “It is we the people, not we the corporations.”
When Toomey attacked Sestak for favoring civilian trials for terrorists like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Sestak told a story of being in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
“Men and women who had worked for me did not walk out,” he said. He began to call the 9/11 terrorists “bastards” and stopped himself.
“They killed my friends,” Sestak said. “I want them put to death for what they did.”
Toomey was obviously frustrated at times. “Joe’s demagoguery knows no limits apparently,” he said.
Toomey did land a few substantive and rhetorical punches. He hit Sestak numerous times for supporting every one of the bailouts passed by Congress over the last few years, and ridiculed Sestak’s claims to fiscal responsibility.
“For Joe to pretend that he has any interest in getting spending under control is simply laughable,” he said.
But when Sestak said that Toomey had “voted against a requirement that government has to live within its means,” in a reference to pay-as-you-go limitations – which have been routinely been evaded by the current Congress – Toomey did not point out that he had voted for a stricter version of PAYGO in 2004 than the version that Sestak supported.
Toomey also hit Sestak on his vote to let the D.C. public schools voucher program expire.
“Joe Sestak opposes giving poor kids a choice of a private school. The teachers union just won’t let him go there,” Toomey said.
But Toomey’s answer on what he opposes in President Obama’s health care overhaul went nowhere in particular, and his attempt to argue in favor of lowering taxes on overseas profits – which was clearly articulated in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – was muddled as well.
Sestak uttered the strangest line of the night as well, deriding Toomey’s frequent returns to criticism of his positions on spending and taxes.
“He sounds like my parrot at home,” Sestak said. “Again and again, but offering no solutions.”