Pennsylvania 2016 and the Senate Race

With the announcement that Mark Rubio would be running for President and that he would not seek reelection to the Senate from Florida, many eyes have turned there.  Since there are more Republicans defending seats in 2016 in the Senate, there is the possibility they may lose their majority.  First, it should be noted that many of the GOP seats are in the rather safe category.  They would have to lose five seats to lose the majority.  Illinois and Florida are certainly possibilities, but beyond that the landscape looks like slimmer pickings for the Democrats.  Couple this with the fact that there is a possibility of a Republican victory in Nevada with the right candidate to replace the first known victim of the zombie apocalypse and the situation does not look so bleak.

That leaves the Democrats looking elsewhere to pick up a seat or seats and one such place is Pennsylvania.  What bolsters their hopes is the fact that this state has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee consistently in the recent past and this is a presidential election year.  They are hoping that Clinton’s coat tails will extend down the ballot and they can pick up a Senate seat in the Keystone State.

To do so, they would have to unseat incumbent Pat Toomey.  I am not really a great fan of the belief that the better funded candidate is usually ensured electoral victory.  In the past, I have tried to show that in open races, the candidate who raised and spent more is not guaranteed victory and that the chances are slightly better than a coin toss.  However, that is not true in the case of incumbents who have a decided advantage.  Whether this is money, the nature of incumbency or the interplay between the two is unknown but likely the latter.  In that regard, Toomey would enter the race as the prohibitive favorite.  Currently, he has a $6 million war chest.

Thus far, there are two declared Democratic candidates which sets up an interesting primary battle.  At the present, they are former Congressman and 2010 candidate Joe Sestak and Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski.  If one remembers, Sestak raised the ire of the Democratic establishment in 2010 when he ran a primary campaign against Arlen Specter who had just switched parties to join the Democrats.  As a result, his vote delivered crucial agenda victories to Obama in 2009 and 2010.  Looking to reward him they threw their weight behind his candidacy only to have Sestak win the primary and end Specter’s political career. These hard feelings have not died in the intervening 6 years.

Which is why the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee was silent when Sestak announced his candidacy this time around.  It is accepted fact that 2010 was a dismal year for the Democratic Party.  They lost control of the House and could have, had it not been for some weak Republican candidates, lost the Senate.  Even though he lost, some thought the close nature of the race between Sestak and Toomey in 2010 would actually help Sestak in a 2016 rematch.  But, that is shaping up not to be.

Besides having a primary challenger, Sestak enters the race as damaged goods as concerns the Democratic Party.  There was the Specter challenge and all that drama.  His 2010 campaign also shunned national leadership help and he hired his younger brother to manage his campaign instead of seasoned veterans.  At times, it was as if Sestak was running against not only Toomey, but his own party’s leadership.  And although he lost by a small amount of votes (80,225 of almost 4 million ballots cast), he lost nevertheless.

Sestak’s problems are compounded this year.  His party is less than enthusiastic about his candidacy.  He trails Toomey in fundraising by $5 million so far.  Although he can catch up (Toomey outraised him in 2010 $14 to $11 million), this time he is facing an incumbent.  For his part, Toomey has kept a relatively low profile and avoided anything that would make Sestak label him an “extremist.”  For example, he has worked with Democrats on certain budgetary items and teamed with Joe Manchin on gun control measures.

Sestak may be the perfect example of someone with their head in the political clouds.  His 2006 Congressional victory occurred in a Democratic wave year that swept that party into power in the House.  He could not parlay that success into statewide victory in 2010 in an open race.  Coupled with the fact that he will face at least one primary challenger this time, there will be less to spend on a general election campaign should he win and given the dynamics, this could be a bloody Democratic primary.  Also, others may enter the fray beyond just Sestak and Pawlowski making the eventual Democratic candidate one without a clear party mandate.

Despite Sestak’s fundraising shortcomings, one would expect the national party to take up some of the slack.  They consider this race too important and Toomey too vulnerable to pass up the opportunity.  However, it is going to take more than gimmicks like walking across Pennsylvania to win the primary and unseat Toomey.  There is too much aligning against Sestak and not enough aligning against his Democratic primary challenger to bring a Sestak victory to fruition.  Slowly, this race is transforming from being a toss-up to being a Republican victory.  For the time being, Toomey can just sit back and enjoy the bloodletting on the other side.