Pennsylvania Primary Shows How Tough Intra-Party Politics Can Get

BY Judy Woodruff  May 14, 2010 at 2:31 PM EDT

I doubt it shows up in any political science textbook, but my observation has long been that intra-party fights can be even rougher and more personal than general election battles.

Remember “You’re likable enough, Hillary…” from then-Sen. Barack Obama, at a 2008 New Hampshire Democratic Party debate?

Just this past weekend, third term Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett took a whipping from fellow conservatives at his own state party convention — punctuated with angry cries that he had lost touch, and didn’t really love the U.S. Constitution.

The current fight in the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania between long-time Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter and second term Congressman Joe Sestak is turning out to be just as sharply fought. When I interviewed the two men this week – Sestak at his campaign headquarters near Philadelphia – and Specter at his Senate office in Washington – each accused the other of lying.

This argument is over who’s telling the truth about how Sestak – a former admiral – ended his 31-year-career in the U.S. Navy. Specter quotes officials saying Sestak was relieved because of a dictatorial style of command. Sestak says he resigned on his own, after his young daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer has since been in remission.

But this is just the surface of a year-long drama that began in April 2009, when Specter revealed he was switching parties because, candidly, he said it would enable him to be re-elected. Conservative former Republican congressman Pat Toomey had just announced he would challenge Specter. The five-term senator decided not to wait for the outcome.

It was a move that delighted Democrats in Washington, who were looking for that precious 60th vote in the Senate to defeat GOP filibusters, but stuck in the craw of many Democratic voters in Pennsylvania who couldn’t forget Specter’s voting history.

Particularly galling for some was his vote for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and his aggressive questioning of attorney Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harrassment.

Others, like the man who showed up at a Sestak rally over the weekend, said, “I’ve been a committee man since 1964 and I’ve been fighting Specter since then, continuously….” And Scott Butler, a Sestak volunteer, told us “…I just don’t like the fact that Arlen Specter, after 30 yeas as a Republican, changed parties just to keep his job.”

With just a few days to go until the May 18 primary, Sestak has gained more than 20 points in the polls and pulled even with Specter, despite the overwhelming support for the incumbent by the Democratic party establishment that include television spots from President Obama and the active endorsement of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

Sestak insisted in an interview that he understands why President Obama and other Democrats are supporting Specter – after his votes for important parts of the Obama administration’s agenda. But he criticizes the deal that was made, and added, “at the end of the day we Pennsylvanians are going to have to live with this decision … we’re a pretty independent minded group … there [are] no more kings and no more king makers in America and I want to be President Obama’s strongest ally, obviously not a yes man, but someone that can help him shape legislation because it really does matter that principle once again triumphs over politics.”

But it would be a mistake to count the 80-year-old Specter out just yet. He has a history of surviving tough challenges, and as he told me this week, “I’m ready, willing and able to do it, and full of vim, vigor and vitality to carry on.”

Watch Judy Woodruff’s full report on the Pennsylvania Democratic primary on Friday’s NewsHour.