Net-Roots Confab Showcases Pennsylvania Primary Fight
PITTSBURGH Six months ago when Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) was being skewered by some of his fellow Republicans for his vote in favor of the economic stimulus package, he probably never imagined he would be courting liberal bloggers at their annual gathering.The party-switching Senator also probably never thought he would find a more receptive audience here at Netroots Nation than at town-hall meetings with his own constituents in the state’s southwestern and southeastern suburbs.John Amato, a 51-year-old full-time California-based blogger for CrooksandLiars.com, thought Specter did well when he addressed the skeptical crowd Friday morning.“It’s good for him to come to engage the net roots, because obviously he switched parties and a lot of Democrats and liberals have mixed feelings about Arlen Specter,— Amato said.It’s those mixed feelings that Rep. Joe Sestak is setting out to stoke over the next eight or so months before Democratic primary voters head to the polls, and it’s why the net-roots confab showcased the daunting landscape that Specter faces.Nonetheless, Amato was among those who said he would vote for Sestak if he could, even after pointing to recent data from another blogger that Specter has voted more often with Democrats than several other members of the caucus, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).Sestak, a pugnacious Navy vice admiral serving only his second term in Congress, has always been a darling of the net roots and liberal bloggers, who were early supporters in his 2006 campaign. When Sestak made his case to the net roots inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center later Friday morning, it was clear that he was facing a much more favorable crowd than Specter.“I can’t tell you how much I respect President [Barack] Obama. But he did not get, as a first-term Senator, to become president of the United States because of political calculation,— Sestak told the crowd. “He did it because of audacity.—The Congressman had several volunteers and some staff with T-shirts at the convention center, and he stayed well into the afternoon to answer questions.Prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers, of OpenLeft.com, is working for the Sestak campaign but is on the payroll of the third-party group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Bowers rejected the idea that Sestak has a bigger base among the net roots than he does with actual Pennsylvania voters, but he said he expected his cybercolleagues to play an important role in the campaign by generating media buzz and fact-checking Specter even if they don’t live in Pennsylvania.“Polling shows that Sestak’s base is going to be in some ways, a lot of Western Pennsylvania, a lot of military voters,— Bowers said. “Specter’s going to have a difficult time holding on to his liberal base given the lack of support he has online.—And according to a straw poll taken at the conference, Specter’s lack of support online was overwhelming but not insurmountable. Sestak garnered 48 percent, while only 10 percent chose Specter and a third of respondents remained undecided. Sestak had a 46 percent favorability rating compared with just 15 percent for Specter.Rising TemperaturesWhile the Senate race — and the ideological fight between Specter and Sestak that many of the net roots are girding for — was a hot topic this weekend, talk about the primary elsewhere in the Keystone State has been drowned out by the often raucous health care reform debate at Members’ town-hall meetings across the country.About an hour northeast of the cool convention center, Bob McAuliffe waited outside for more than four hours in the heat to get into a Specter town hall in Kittanning on Thursday afternoon. Wearing his blue steelworker polo shirt, the 57-year-old union member said he is happy with his health insurance program.“The reality behind why I’m here? I have good health care, I really do. But I worry about my children and my grandchildren. I want to make sure there’s something there for them. That’s really why I’m here.—In the past, McAuliffe — a Democrat — said he has voted for Specter, but now he’s not so sure because Sestak is in the race.“I’m thinking I’m not sure what I’ll do this time though,— McAuliffe said. “I’d like to see [the] Employee Free Choice Act [passed]. I know that’s not what we’re here about, but we’ll see what happens with that. Joe Sestak supported it, but I’m not sure where Arlen Specter’s at about that.—A day later, Specter said he would support a cloture vote on compromise EFCA legislation, reversing his previous position from when he was a Republican and facing a daunting primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey.But back in Kittanning, 51-year-old Robert Myers had a prime spot to watch Specter even after he was one of the last of 200 people to get into the town hall. Wearing a National Rifle Association cap, he’s mad because he thinks no matter what, Specter will always have better health care than him on the taxpayer’s dime.Specter, who has twice battled cancer, is well-aware of that concern. As he answered more than 30 mostly emotional questions about health care legislation at the town hall, he often refers to his own health care crisis. He said that early detection of Hodgkin’s disease several years ago is why he’s still alive today.“That’s the kind of health care I want for every American,— he told the crowd.Myers said he was never going to vote for Specter anyway, but he didn’t think he said a “heckuva lot— during the meeting. Still, he appreciated that the Senator for showing up and taking the heat. “Can I add one thing? I do respect him for coming here,— Myers said.Despite the shouting interruptions and affronts to Specter, several participants said they respected him for coming out and listening to their concerns. After all, Specter is the first person to point out that he’s not trying to avoid the crowds.“I am encouraging my colleagues to do these meetings. This is the fourth meeting I’ve had in the last four days. I’m going to tell you, but I’m sure you already know: It’s no picnic,— Specter said.Selling Street CredAcross the river from the convention center in downtown Pittsburgh, Toomey spoke Friday night to a dinner audience of conservative activists. Toomey is likely to be the Republican that either Specter or Sestak will face in next year’s general election, and the former Congressman came to fire up the GOP’s activist blogger base at RightOnline, a counter conference sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.“As some of you may have noticed, the old media isn’t on our side,— Toomey told the notably older crowd.Recent polling has shown Toomey to be a very formidable opponent for either Democrat, even after some Republicans said he could not win a general election following Specter’s party switch. Toomey dropped his exploratory gubernatorial bid this spring and announced his second primary challenge to Specter in April. Toomey just barely lost to Specter in the 2004 primary.“A rather funny thing happened on my way to a Republican primary running for U.S. Senate,— Toomey said. “One look at the polls, and Arlen Specter decided he wasn’t running against me. I had every intention of beating him in the Republican primary, but I didn’t think I would just clear him right out of the party.—Indeed, six months ago political observers were gearing up to watch a spectacular Specter-Toomey rematch on the right. Yet that scenario seemed like age-old history on Friday as the crowd of hundreds of progressive online activists watched Specter selling his liberal credentials Friday morning.“I have effectively joined President Obama’s Democratic team when I voted for the stimulus package,— Specter told the net-roots crowd. “I provided a key vote.—It was after Specter cast that stimulus vote that he watched his poll numbers sink, which precipitated his April party switch.Specter repeatedly told the net-roots audience that he gave Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) his first job out of law school and Vice President Joseph Biden had courted him to switch parties for several decades. He said he’s been out there more than many of his longtime Democratic colleagues speaking to “hostile— audiences at town halls across the state.Then Specter called out one of his colleagues, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for his comments on advance directives in the health care reform legislation. Specter told the net-roots crowd that he would call his colleague backstage after the panel to tell him that his view was simply “not correct.— He even invited the questioner, Amato, to come backstage and watch him make the call.About an hour later, the Senate Finance ranking member responded to the call on Twitter.“Specter got it all wrong that I ever used words death boards.’ Even liberal press never accused me of that. So change ur last Tweet Arlen,— Grassley tweeted.The new Democrat had successfully engaged his now former Republican colleague on behalf of a new audience. Although it was far from a knockout move, Specter had been welcomed to the party.