Two weeks out from Election Day, Republican Pat Toomey appears poised to lead a Republican surge in Pennsylvania in a Senate race that will test just how deeply the state’s “blue” roots run.
The battle between Mr. Toomey, a former congressman, and Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat, is part of a larger story of this year’s congressional campaigns: Democrats find they are devoting money and manpower to save Senate seats in areas that were once considered their political backyards. In Pennsylvania, Senate Democrats’ campaign committee has spent more than it has on any other race, and Mr. Sestak has been aided by visits from President Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
It’s among the toughest races to predict.
Political prognosticators say it’s shifting away from Democrats. The Cook and Rothenberg political reports gave Mr. Toomey a slight edge, Rasmussen Reports moved the race to solidly Republican and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball put it in the “likely Republican” column last week. The RealClearPolitics.com average of polls gives Mr. Toomey a lead of nearly 8 percentage points.
But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee points to a recent poll it sponsored that gives Mr. Sestak a slight edge, and union officials say they’ve detected a belated awakening of voters eager to keep the seat in Democrats’ hands.
“That’s a race,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the current chairman of the Republican Main Street Partnership, who ran House Republicans’ campaign committee for two cycles earlier this decade.
Mr. Davis said he expects Democrats to put money into Pennsylvania’s contest and into Senate races in other states where they may be able to rally their seemingly unenthusiastic base voters to the polls.
“If I were Democrats, I would put my money into the blue states, because I think where you have some DNA there, that’s where you want to try to drive your turnout and know you have expectations,” he said.
Pennsylvania is one of those fundamentally blue states. It gave Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican, the boot in 2006, last supported a Republican for president in 1988, and has 12 Democrats in its 19-member congressional delegation.
Awakening their base also could help Democrats in Washington, California, Illinois and Connecticut — all traditionally blue states where Republicans are competing heavily this year.
The DSCC has backed up its optimism in Pennsylvania with cash, pumping $4.7 million into the campaign since Mr. Sestak defeated Republican turned Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter in the party’s May primary. Much of that money has been spent on ads attacking Mr. Toomey and casting the former derivatives trader as a Wall Street crony.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has directly invested nearly $600,000 into the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and has volunteers in every congressional district.
Hari Sevugan, a DNC spokesman, said investing in Pennsylvania builds on a solid foundation.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell “has done a great job building it up, and it has been strong for many many years prior to Gov. Rendell as well,” he said. “Clearly, there has been a lot of investment in this state over the course of many presidential cycles as well.”
Perhaps portending the fight to come in the final days before voters hit the polls, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) last week went up with its first ad of the election cycle on behalf of Mr. Toomey.
Mr. Toomey has also enjoyed support from the Club for Growth, where he previously served as president, as well as from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads GPS, the group headed by Karl Rove, the mastermind behind George W. Bush’s electoral successes.
Meanwhile, Richard Bloomingdale, head of the AFL-CIO, which has more than 850,000 members, said he is “starting to see people come alive in central Pennsylvania” as more people have volunteered to work the local phone banks and go door-to-door on behalf of Mr. Sestak.
“It’s coming to life,” he said. “It took a little bit longer, and we are probably a little bit behind where we were in 2008, but I’m starting to feel more enthusiasm.”
He attributed some of the renewed energy to Christine O’Donnell, the “tea party”-backed candidate running for the Senate in neighboring Delaware. Ms. O’Donnell has run a campaign commercial that aired in the Philadelphia television market, which also serves Delaware, in which she assures voters that “I’m not a witch.” That followed the airing of an 11-year-old TV sound bite in which she admitted to “dabbling” in witchcraft while in high school.
“That was a real boon for us,” he said. “Maybe people were starting to believe we were drifting too much to the left, and they wanted to bring it back. But then they see people like her, and it’s like, ‘Wow, maybe these people aren’t too far out, but the other side is.’ “