Toomey/Sestak Race Starts Ugly

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On Tuesday night as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter took the stage to give his concession speech he thanked the crowd and remarked at the large number of media in the room – which nearly doubled the size of his audience. “Look at all these reporters, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many,” he said chuckling lightly at his joke.

The next morning across town in the upstairs room of a tiny regional airport, the Republican nominee for Specter’s seat, former Rep. Pat Toomey, gave his first post-primary press conference to a handful of media, augmented by a handful of supporters and one retired seeing eye dog named Valor. “I appreciate being here this morning and I appreciate all of you for being here as well,” Toomey said, looking earnestly grateful at his tiny audience.

The day after a big primary always feels like a hangover – even when you win. But after the yearlong drama between Specter and his Democratic opponent Joe Sestak, Toomey’s blowout primary victory with 82% of the vote seemed anticlimactic. Toomey could well be the next senator from the Keystone State as leading up to the primary he lead both Specter and Sestak in the polls. But Wednesday morning, the questions from local reporters were still focused on Specter and Sestak. Did your role in forcing Specter from the GOP have a hand in his political demise? Are you going to demand to see Sestak’s military records? Is Sestak too far left, outside of the mainstream Democratic Party?

Of course some of this line of questioning may have come from Toomey’s odd speech. The former head for the Club for Growth spent next to no time defining himself or talking about his agenda for Pennsylvania and gave no pledges on what he’d do if elected. Instead he spent much of the speech blasting Sestak. In his 7-minute opening remarks he said “I” or “me” 52 times – including the thank yous – and “Joe or “he” 43 times.

“I think Joe’s a good guy, I like Joe Sestak,” Toomey said. “But I will tell you that Joe and I profoundly differ on the right direction for our country. So we’ll provide a very clear choice for voters. Not only does Joe Sestak take a very liberal policy position on virtually every policy issue of the day, the opposite of the position that I take, but Joe’s position is so liberal, so far to the left that he’s outside the mainstream even of the Democratic Party.”

Toomey went on to criticize Sestak for supporting “the Pelsoi/Reid/Obama agenda.” Sestak “supported the serial bailouts of failing companies, the nationalization of whole industries, the gigantic stimulus, card check, cap and trade, the health care bill – Joe’s for all of that. He’s voted for all of that and he wants more of that,” Toomey said.

Sestak is actually considered one of the more moderate members of the House with a National Journal liberal rating of 77/100 in 2009 – but it was clear that Toomey wanted to define Sestak as a raging pinko before Sestak has a chance to define him. Though few are so blunt about it as Toomey, the beginning of a general election is all about defining your opponent – trying to find the message that resounds with the public (though usually most candidates make a stab at defining themselves first). For John Kerry in 2004, for example, the label flip-flopper proved fatal. And Barack Obama successfully portrayed McCain as part of the status quo, the establishment problem.

The Sestak campaign quickly fired back, trying to paint Toomey as in the pocket of Wall Street and big business given his early years as a currency trader and his time leading the Club for Growth, a non-profit that promotes limited government and free-enterprise advocacy. “Those whose failed policies pushed us to the brink of depression now like to criticize the efforts that have put us on the path to recovery,” said Sestak spokesman Joe Langdon. “Joe Sestak is more than ready to put his record of serving this nation for 31 years in the Navy and fighting for working families in Congress against Congressman Toomey’s background as a Wall Street trader and head of a DC corporate lobbying group, the Club for Growth.”

When asked if it might be a bit early on the first day of the General Election to go so negative against his opponent, Toomey noted that pointing out policy differences wasn’t going negative and his criticisms were not personal in nature. “I respect Joe Sestak, I honor Joe Sestak,” he added. Still, it’s not hard to see that this is shaping up to be one nasty contest to replace Specter.