MEDIA, Pa. | Rep. Joe Sestak, a son of the Philadelphia suburbs, needs the independent voters in his backyard as he campaigns as a Democrat for a Senate seat in a state that may tilt Republican this year.
But polls suggest that independents have been turning their support away from President Obama and the Democratic Party. Even in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Obama won by double digits two years ago, independents have become frustrated with the economic downturn and administration initiatives.
Mr. Sestak, a two-term congressman, has his work cut out for him.
“To vote for any of them right now, I’m not really sure I could. It’s too early to say,” said Tori Fisher, 45, an artist selling handmade jewelry at a picnic table down the street from Mr. Sestak’s bustling campaign headquarters.
Ms. Fisher backed Mr. Obama two years ago and Democrats in 2006, but now says that “all of my friends feel frustrated” with the president’s policies. “All of them could be doing a better job,” she said of the Democrats controlling the White House and Congress.
On a nearby park bench, Albert Davis, 63, calls his previous support for Mr. Obama unfortunate. He faults the president and his party for their handling of the troubled economy, the soaring budget deficit and the new health care law.
“I thought he could straighten this country out,” Mr. Davis said. “I may have been wrong.”
Mr. Davis doesn’t know how he’ll vote this fall - “if I vote.”
Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1.2 million in Pennsylvania, independent voters, especially those in the so-called “collar counties” around Philadelphia, have proved decisive in elections in this swing state. They are seen as key to victory in the competitive Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman who once headed the anti-tax Club for Growth, and Mr. Sestak, who defeated Sen. Arlen Specter, a former Republican who switched parties to run in the May 18 Democratic primary.
A recent poll showed Mr. Toomey with a clear advantage among independent voters, and the same Quinnipiac University survey showed Mr. Obama’s approval rating at less than 50 percent in the state. The president has lost considerable ground among Pennsylvania independents.
In 2006 and 2008, independents frustrated with President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq pushed Democrats to House and Senate wins across the country. Among the winners was a retired admiral and political novice named Joe Sestak, who captured a district that encompasses the one-time factory town of Conshohocken and the wealthy enclaves of the Main Line.
This year, voters unaligned with either major political party are disgruntled with the direction of the country, the Democrat-controlled Congress and Mr. Obama - and appear poised to punish the party in power.
Nationwide, a recent Pew Research Center survey showed Republicans with an edge over Democrats - 44 percent to 36 percent - among independents. At this point in 2006, independents favored Democrats 47 percent to 32 percent.
With independents so critical to victory, each Senate candidate is casting the other as an extreme ideologue who is out of step with voters on economic issues.
“Pat Toomey, someone I like, will always side with Wall Street and big oil … but I’ll stand up and fight for the working family and what they need,” said Mr. Sestak, painting his opponent as far too conservative for the state. Mr. Sestak regularly hammers the former Republican congressman on his support for energy drilling in Lake Erie and for his House votes on measures that included tax breaks for corporations.
Mr. Toomey, in turn, assails Mr. Sestak for voting for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, the $862 billion economic stimulus, the health care law and “cap-and-trade” legislation that critics deride as an energy tax.
“That’s liberal,” said Mr. Toomey. Mr. Sestak “is in lock step with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and her agenda.”
Republicans frequently link Mr. Sestak with the House speaker from San Francisco and argue that Mr. Sestak does nothing more than toe the Democratic line. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, “If voters give Mr. Sestak a promotion this November, they can expect more of the same from the Washington Democrats’ tax-and-spend agenda - lost jobs, higher taxes and bigger government.”
Freed from a GOP primary this year, Mr. Toomey has amassed far more money. He raised $3.1 million in the most recent fundraising quarter and ended with $4.65 million available. He has four offices open, is running TV ads and is getting help from deep-pocketed groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Sestak emerged from his hard-fought Democratic primary with Mr. Specter all but broke; he raised $1.95 million last quarter and had about $2 million on hand. He has yet to run TV ads but has 10 campaign offices.
Still, almost three months before Election Day, polls show the Senate race a dead heat.
If independents break for the Republicans this fall in Pennsylvania, Democrats could lose a Senate seat and a governorship in an important presidential state two years before Mr. Obama is expected to seek re-election.
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