John Baer: Sestak's rough times suddenly feeling silky

After a Saturday rally at Penn State, Joe Sestak faces a group of Pat Toomey supporters (left, top). And so did Toomey, who greeted supporters (left, bottom) at campaign event in Blue Bell on Friday. The race, once easily Toomey's, now appears to be neck-and-neck.
After a Saturday rally at Penn State, Joe Sestak faces a group of Pat Toomey supporters (left, top). And so did Toomey, who greeted supporters (left, bottom) at campaign event in Blue Bell on Friday. The race, once easily Toomey's, now appears to be neck-and-neck.
Posted: October 25, 2010

IS JOE SESTAK like a horse with a down-the-stretch finishing kick?

Gov. Ed thinks so.

"Sestak has always been a fighter," says Ed. "He's the Silky Sullivan of American politics."

For those who are younger than the Guv or who don't always speak in sports metaphors, Silky Sullivan was a thoroughbred race horse in the 1950s known for come-from-behind wins.

Is the Democratic congressman "Silky" Sestak?

Well, Republican Pat Toomey held comfortable leads in their Senate race in every poll from June until last week. New polls show the contest neck-and-neck, and a race that for months was "leaning GOP" is today a toss-up.

Remember, Sestak came from behind to upset longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon in 2006 (although a federal investigation of Weldon helped), then Sestak came from behind to beat longer-time incumbent Arlen Specter in last spring's primary (although Specter's switching parties to save his own skin helped).

In late August, I wrote that elections turn on windows opening on various issues, and at that time the issue was a sour economy benefiting Toomey.

Today other windows also are open.

"Democrats are starting to come home," says Ed.

That's the spin of party loyalists who for months privately bemoaned lethargy as poll after poll saw "enthusiasm gaps" suggesting that Republicans would vote in decisively better numbers than Democrats.

But now?

"I think there is a surge," says Mayor Nutter, "and it couldn't come at a better time."

Nutter says that visits to the city and southeastern counties by President Obama and party candidates "energized and focused" local, state and federal elected Democrats to get out the vote.

The region is critical. Philly and its four collar counties hold close to 40 percent of the total Democratic vote. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide by 1.2 million, if they vote their candidates gain.

Also, Nutter and others point to what Nutter calls "the situation in Delaware," a reference to the wackiness around GOP Senate contender Christine (not-a-witch-nor-much-familiar-with-the-First Amendment) O'Donnell.

"I think for many the tea-party people seemed far away," says Nutter, "but after [U.S. Rep. and former governor] Mike Castle, who has been helpful to the region, loses to a complete nobody, a 'not-a-witch,' I mean this is insanity, and I think people are starting to wake up."

I actually think there's something to this.

O'Donnell gets tons of national and regional attention. Other GOP tea-party types, such as Nevada's Sharron Angle and Kentucky's Rand Paul, push anti-government slogans and pledges to "take our government back." And a nutcase Texas GOP congressional candidate, Stephen Broden, advocates violent overthrow of government if elections don't change leadership.

At some point, spreading vitriol - which represents more sophistry than solutions - splashes right-leaning GOP candidates and awakens moderate voters and Democrats. I think that point's been reached.

I even think that it's part of the reason that Pennsylvania's governor's race between conservative, long-front-running Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato just moved from double to single digits.

Had Republicans stayed with a steady drumbeat about the economy, Democrats would have stayed asleep and there would be no surge.

But too many messages of anger, a constant overfunded stream of negative ads attacking the president and national Democrats maybe went too far. Republicans might have set off an ideological alarm and awakened the state's majority party.

This was supposed to be the season of the GOP. It still might be.

Republicans can take solace in the fact the Ed Rendell calling Sestak "Silky Sullivan" is the same Rendell who earlier this year said Sestak would "get killed" if he ran against Specter and had "no chance to win" the primary.

But if Republicans lose key races, they have only themselves to blame - for tacitly embracing far-out tea-party messages and candidates, and thereby opening new windows for down-the-stretch Democrats.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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