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Federal Spending Front and Center in Pa., Wash. Senate Races

October 26, 2010 at 6:08 PM EDT
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With only one week to go before the midterm elections, Republicans need to win 10 seats to gain the Senate majority. Gwen Ifill takes a look at the close Senate races in Pennsylvania and Washington.
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GWEN IFILL: Only a week before the election, and several key Senate races are still simply too close to call. Tonight, we take a closer look at the issues and the candidates driving the debate in the East and the West. It’s part of our continuing Vote 2010 coverage.

The road to a Republican Senate majority runs through several key states, two of the campaign battlegrounds, Pennsylvania and Washington. In Washington, three-term incumbent Democrat Patty Murray faces a tough challenge from Republican Dino Rossi, who has run unsuccessfully for governor twice before. Their dead-heat race has drawn presidential visits and national attention.

The two sparred last weekend in a debate that focused on the federal government’s response to the economic crisis.

DINO ROSSI (R-Wash.), senatorial candidate: Look, every one of those stimulus jobs that came to the state of Washington, according to the federal government, cost $323,000 to create each one. What I talked about is allowing entrepreneurs to chase that American dream, doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-Wash.): I go out on those work sites where those men and women are working, and, again, it’s Merlino Construction on Mercer Street that is paying those people. Mr. Rossi is going to give them a pink slip. The people who are working to fix Howard Hanson Dam right now, he’s going to give them a pink slip.

GWEN IFILL: Similar themes are playing out in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak and former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey are also locked in a tossup Senate race. Whoever wins will replace Arlen Specter, who lost to Sestak after switching parties last year.

In their debate last week, each sought to paint the other as out of touch with the concerns of average Pennsylvanians. Sestak attempted to tie Toomey to conservatives linked to the Tea Party movement.

REP. JOE SESTAK (D-Pa.), senatorial candidate: Palin, Toomey, O’Donnell, they all would like to overturn Roe vs. Wade. I believe that the life decisions of a family should be made within the family. I don’t think government should intervene. And I respect precedents on the Supreme Court. I think there’s even more of an extreme taken by Congressman Toomey on such social issues and others.

GWEN IFILL: And, much as Rossi has done in Washington, Toomey tied Sestak to the Obama administration’s economic policy.

PAT TOOMEY (R-Pa.), senatorial candidate: That stimulus bill, Joe might be the only person in the United States who thinks that that should have been a trillion dollars, as he said, because $800 billion of money we didn’t have wasn’t enough.

Joe, that’s a very extreme agenda. And it’s out of step with Pennsylvania.

GWEN IFILL: One clear sign of the importance of the state, President Obama will return there to campaign for Sestak this weekend.

For more, we turn to James O’Toole, political editor for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Joel Connelly, national correspondent and political columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Welcome to you both. Jim O’Toole, let’s start with you.

What’s going on in Pennsylvania, and why is it so close?

JAMES O’TOOLE, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Well, I think that, this campaign, both sides have tried to paint one another as the handmaiden of Wall Street. And the — that message has really gotten on a lot more from the Sestak campaign in recent weeks.

Toomey has had the upper hand, I think most people would agree, almost since the primary. But it’s now a pretty close race, according to the polls and the body language of the campaigns. President Obama’s visit to Philadelphia for the second time in about three weeks is certainly an indication of that.

GWEN IFILL: So, who are the target voters for each side? Who are the Republicans targeting in this last week, and who are the Democrats going after?

JAMES O’TOOLE: Well, I think that the Democrats — and the Obama visit is an example of it — are working really hard right now to bring out their base, to bring a big turnout in Philadelphia.

President Obama’s numbers in Pennsylvania, a state he carried in a landslide a couple years ago, are not good right now, but they are still — he’s still popular in Philadelphia.

And, for Sestak, for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate to have any chance, they have got to come out in big numbers there. Former Representative Toomey is going for the same cohort that Republicans are going for across the country: people who are upset about the economy, concerned that there’s been too much money spent on bailouts, and people who just don’t see a way out of this recession.

GWEN IFILL: We just heard a little bit of Joe Sestak trying to link Mr. Toomey to the Tea Party movement. How much of a factor is that in this race? And did his effort in that debate actually help or hurt?

JAMES O’TOOLE: Well, I think, on social issues, there’s an opportunity for the Democrats, particularly in the socially liberal suburbs of Philadelphia, but it’s not as much of an opportunity in this election cycle as maybe in others, because the economy is so much drowning out other issues.

Representative Toomey is a social conservative, but his history and his current campaign are focused much more on kind of economic conservative issues. And in that, he — his appeal dovetails with the message of the Tea Party.

GWEN IFILL: And since President Obama did win there in 2008, but, as you pointed out, isn’t doing so well there right now in terms of popularity, when he comes back repeatedly, or Vice President Biden, of course, who is from Scranton, Pennsylvania, comes back repeatedly into the state, is that helping?

JAMES O’TOOLE: Well, it is a double-edged sword, as you suggest. But I think that the upside is much more important to the Democrats than the negative.

I think the negative is already there. You’re not going to pin Sestak’s reputation closer to the administration’s. I think he does not — although he asserts his political independence, he does not try to walk away from his votes for things like health care and the stimulus, so that if — insofar as President Obama can engender any enthusiasm in the big Democratic strongholds, that’s something that is essential to Democratic candidates statewide.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Connelly, in Washington State, we’re talking about an incumbent senator who is trying to hold on to her seat in the case of Patty Murray. She’s a known quantity there. Why is she so vulnerable?

JOEL CONNELLY, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: She’s vulnerable because she has an opponent who had , in Dino Rossi’s words, $20 million worth of media exposure in his 2004 and 2008 campaigns for governor.

We also have a state that has had very, very close elections, U.S. Senate in 2000, governor’s race decided by 133 votes, with Rossi on the losing side in 2004. Various parts of the state vote in very different ways.

And so Murray is desperately trying to get out the vote in the Seattle area. Rossi is campaigning in more conservative Republican areas in Southwest Washington and Eastern Washington.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Dino Rossi’s name recognition because he’s run twice before in close races, but, if he didn’t win those times, what’s different this time?

JOEL CONNELLY: In 2008, you had an awful lot of surge voters, younger voters inspired by the Obama campaign. You also had a great deal of support for women for Governor Christine Gregoire, who beat Rossi.

The Murray campaign is attempting to remobilize that — that support. Witness both Michelle Obama and Jill Biden being here for Murray yesterday, so, essentially, very, very much along the same — the same battle lines, with Murray putting a great deal of emphasis on what has been her core support: women voters.

GWEN IFILL: How are the issues in a traditionally blue state like Washington different, even though they’re both dead heats, from — than in a state like Pennsylvania, which has trended more purple-like, I guess you can say, in recent years?

JOEL CONNELLY: Washington is a very socially liberal place, pro-environment, pro-choice. We legalized abortion well before the Roe vs. Wade decision. Murray is hitting on that type of issue.

At the same time, however, Rossi is something of a prized recruit for the Senate Republican leadership. He believes, to borrow the phrase of Calvin Coolidge, that the business of America is business, that we should extend the Bush tax cuts, that, if we do that, we will provide business with not only money, but certainty, and the free enterprise system will lift us out of the great recession — so, a very, very clear choice.

Murray is — while she stresses that she’s a mom in tennis shoes, still a mom in tennis shoes, she’s also the fourth-ranking member of the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

GWEN IFILL: And, Joel, we spend a lot of time here in Washington looking at the money that is being spent in these campaigns. And it’s something the Democrats have been talking about a lot. Washington State is a perfect example.

How much evidence do you see that all of these outside groups which we keep hearing about in the abstract are actually having an effect on this race?

JOEL CONNELLY: American Crossroads, one conservative group, began depicting Murray’s tennis shoes as stomping on people immediately after the primary. Crossroads GPS is in to the tune of about $2.6 million. I get mailings in my mailbox from Americans for Tax Reform.

The Rossi campaign has raised a certain amount of money, but outside groups have spent a great deal more money. And Democratic outside groups have come in, too. So, we have the wall-to-wall negative — negative advertising on TV. The waders that people use for fishing in our streams during the fall months are needed now for the muddiness of the campaign we’re witnessing.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Jim O’Toole, I want to go back to Pennsylvania for a moment, because one of the things which is true about both of these races is that, every day, there’s a new poll that tells you it’s going one point, two points, three points one way or the other.

How do you — as a paid political professional here, analyst, how do you figure it out? How do you know which way it’s going? You said body language earlier.

JAMES O’TOOLE: Well, I — I don’t know the answer. I don’t know which polls are precisely accurate. I don’t know which ones are more predictive.

But, I mean, I think everybody follows the consensus of polls. And that’s shown some narrowing, though I should say that there was an outlier — well, it might prove to be the accurate one. There was a seeming out outlier today.

The Muhlenberg College tracking poll, which a lot of people follow here, showed former Representative Toomey jumping up to a nine-point lead, which would be a big, big disappointment if it were — to the Democrats, if it were true.

GWEN IFILL: But wasn’t there another poll later in the day that showed it at one point? I mean, this is when it starts to get crazy, yes.

JAMES O’TOOLE: Yes, yes. Reuters had a poll that had it dead-even. And so there has been some dissonance, but more convergence in recent weeks, in the last two or three weeks.

GWEN IFILL: I want to end by asking you both this question. And I will start with you, Jim, and then go to you, Joel.

In two — two years ago, both of these states went for Barack Obama in what was certainly a historic and remarkable election in lots of ways, in that states didn’t do what they had always done. What changed in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2010, or what looks like it’s changed? Is it the economy? What is it?

JAMES O’TOOLE: Well, I think it is a very simple answer. And I think it’s why this is such a nationalized election. It is the economy.

People are weary of all these double-digit months of high unemployment. And there’s no — there’ no immediate hope, to use a word that was bandied about much in 2008. And I think that it’s just tried the patience of many voters in this state.

GWEN IFILL: And, Joel, in a state where every single ballot is being cast by mail, how does that play out?

JOEL CONNELLY: It plays out as a kind of a three-week election campaign.

But to go to your previous question, we’re kind of a bullish part of the country. We still make things that the world wants to buy. People come here to start new lives and so on. But we have had something that we haven’t seen in many, many years in the Northwest. And that is uncertainty.

And people are mulling a decision between two very clear, clear and very different alternatives in this election. It’s going to be close here, too. We may actually take a couple of weeks beyond the election, with the country looking at us to count those ballots.

GWEN IFILL: We will see you on Turkey Day, then. Joel Connelly of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and James O’Toole of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, thank you both very much.

JOEL CONNELLY: Thanks, Gwen.

JAMES O’TOOLE: Thank you.