Washington Matters


Sen. Specter Deserves Primary Competition


Newly self-appointed Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter has done a lot for Pennsylvania since being elected in 1980 as a Republican. How could anyone with such long service not? Now he's getting the help of prominent Democrats who want him to have a clean, easy ride to the Democratic nomination for another Senate term. While less well known than Specter, the leading potential challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, deserves a shot, and Pennsylvania Democrats deserve a choice. Sestak shouldn't be bullied by national pols out of challenging Specter.   

There's little doubt Specter, who switched parties in April because he feared he would lose a very tough Republican primary challenge, will raise gobs of Democatic money. He has the early backing of President Obama, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Philadelphia-area Rep. Chaka Fattah and others, and he has state-wide and national name recognition most politicians only dream about. 

Rendell even went so far as to warn Sestak, who is still officially mulling a decision to challenge, that he would get "killed" and "marginalized" in a primary challenge to Specter. Tough words from a governor who wants Sestak out of a race and from a party general who carries the influence of having been chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Obama, Vice President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nev., have offered full support for Specter, a nod to his decision to switch parties and become a Democrat, putting the Senate Democratic caucus closer to having 60 votes to cut off filibusters and wield more control. Specter, a moderate, generally, over the years, could prove essential in health care, energy, labor, immigration legislation, judge confirmations and more. And Pennsylvania will again be an important state for Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Specter could obviously help the White House.

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It's a bit unfair, though, for prominent Democrats -- and the president -- to work so quickly and almost reflexively after Specter's party-switching annoucement two months ago, to take steps to ward off a possible primary challenge next year. If Specter is so heavily favored, why should the party big wigs be worried about a little choice on the ballot? Shouldn't the Senate race be the choice of Pennsyvanians and not powerbrokers, anyway?

Sestak, in his second term in the House, has much to offer Pennsylvania voters. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, Sestak is well versed in national security, intelligence and defense issues. He also worked as Director of Defense Policy in former President Clinton's National Security Council. No small position, that.

Sestak called the Iraq war a "tragic misadventure" and has been harshly critical of the Bush administration's conduct in the war on terror, according to Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America. Colleagues call him brilliant on an array of defense and foreign policy issues. He beat a 10-term (20-years) congressman, Curt Weldon, R, in his first run for Congress in 2006. He also has much personal knowledge of family health care costs and challenges; his young daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was called to high position in the Navy.

Whoever the Democratic nominee will be, he will face either former Rep. Pat Toomey, a very conservative Republican who very narrowly lost to Specter in the 2004 Senate GOP primary and who would likely have beaten Specter in the GOP primary this time, or possibly third-term Rep. Jim Gerlach, R, a fairly moderate Republican from the wealthy southeast area near Philadelphia.

Sestak is leaning closer to running. He'd give Pennsylvania Democrats something to think about upon the ballot choice. There's nothing wrong with that --  or so be it if Sen. Specter and national Democratic figures don't exactly relish Sestak running. That's called democracy. It was founded in Independence Hall in, yes, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.




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