Sestak and Democrats pin hopes in Pennsylvania on Philadelphia

Jon Ward Contributor
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PHILADELPHIA | Joe Sestak is trying so hard to turn out voters here that sometimes he doesn’t appear to know what he’s saying.

He walked into a storefront campaign call center in a northeast section of the city Monday afternoon to greet volunteers. After mentioning the graduation rates for black males and whites in this city (28 percent and 33 percent), the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate – who won a seat in Congress in 2006 after a 31-year naval career – launched into a story.

“I tell people, as I go around, I can remember sitting there on the ground in Afghanistan for a very short mission, and it was short. There was a farmhouse late at night, a couple of Navy Seals, 2 a.m. in the morning looking out, no roof, broken windows,” Sestak said, taking small steps forward, backward and sideways as he talked.

“You look outside, and a little bit of repair, and we wouldn’t have to be here. You go around the streets, and you do a little bit of healing, and America has all the opportunity it needs for us to be great. And that’s what this race is about,” he said.

Sestak’s rambling near-incoherence – he told the volunteers he was at his tenth event of the day (it was his fifth) – is likely due at least in part to the frenetic pace he is keeping in the campaign’s final week. He knows the only way he can beat Republican Pat Toomey is to somehow rouse the hundreds of thousands of Democrat voters in the city of Brotherly Love to go to the polls on Nov. 2.

“This is going to be won by get out the vote,” he said. “Enthusiasm gap? Stop the whining. What’s the problem? You got to convince them? Let’s do it.”

He then walked to a few small storefront businesses – a mini-mart, a takeout, etc. – to shake hands with store owners, before dashing to a train station for more hand shaking.

Sestak, who came from behind in the primary to unseat incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, has been closing on Toomey in the polls. But he faces an uphill challenge in overcoming the national mood, which is expected to bring unusual numbers of Republicans to the polls. Dissatisfaction with President Obama and his agenda will also likely mean a good number of votes for Republican candidates from the large numbers of moderate Democrats in Pennsylvania.

And if Pennsylvania were to go back to Republicans, it would put them one important seat closer to picking up 10 in all, and control of the Senate. Thus the high stakes, and the focus on Philly.

Philadelphia is a treasure trove of voters for a Democrat candidate: they outnumber Republicans 832,256 to 136,657. They are one-fifth of the entire state’s 4.3 million Democrats, though much less than half of Philadelphia Democrats usually vote. There are 3.1 million registered Republicans statewide.

Sestak is spending much of his time here. He has five events in Philadelphia Tuesday alone between 6 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.

President Obama will be here again on Saturday for another rally on the heels of a campaign stop earlier this month. First lady Michelle Obama will come here Monday. Other major national Democrats are also expected.

In 2006, Sen. Robert Casey unseated incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum by a large margin, receiving 2.4 million votes to Santorum’s 1.7 million. Philadelphia gave Casey 357,057 votes, while Santorum got only 67,452 ballots in his favor.

Republicans believe if they can narrow that margin, partially through tallying around 75,000 votes in Philadelphia, that will be key to helping them hold Sestak off.

And then there are the four collar counties around Philadelphia, which Toomey is counting on to give him big numbers. The registration numbers here are much more even: 753,477 Democrats to 740,696 Republicans.

“They have the ability to go either way. They’re available,” Toomey said in an interview Monday evening in Quakertown, a town of just over 8,000 located roughly an hour north of Philadelphia in Bucks County, one of the collar counties.

The other major cache of votes in the state is in Allegheny County, on the western side of the state, where there are 560,377 Democrats and 243,491 Republicans.

Toomey walked into the GOP headquarters in Quakertown with his wife Kris, and greeted about 25 volunteers. It was his third public event of the day. Toomey, a former congressman, was serenely confident.

He noted that his wife had delivered their third child, a boy, only five months before, and said she was “really looking forward to this being done.”

“The good news is, it’s going to work out right. I really think so,” Toomey said. “The race isn’t over. We don’t have it wrapped up. We certainly can’t ease up but we’re probably going to win if we keep working hard the way you have been.”

He railed against Obama and his policies, blaming them for exacerbating the economic recession.

“You look at this agenda that they have inflicted on us – serial bailouts, nationalizing whole industries, spending money on a scale we’ve never seen before, corresponding deficits and debt that are completely unsustainable, cap and trade, card check and government run health care – is it any wonder we don’t have a recovery going? This is what’s preventing it,” Toomey said to nods of agreement.

Before finishing, he cautioned his supporters.

“There’s nothing inevitable. We have to earn this.”

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