Sestak’s $5 Million Question: How to Effectively Hit Specter?

Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:31am

Democratic leaders are bullish about Sen. Arlen Specter’s (D-Pa.) prospects in his primary against Rep. Joe Sestak except for one reason — actually, about 5.1 million little reasons.

Specter has maintained a 20-point to 30-point lead over Sestak since the two-term House Democrat announced last summer that he would challenge the former Republican Senator in the May 18 primary.

Many Democrats wrote off Sestak’s candidacy from the start. But, with less than seven weeks to go, there is still the lingering question about how Sestak plans to spend the $5.1 million he has in the bank and whether his war chest could give him even a fighting chance of winning.

Several Pennsylvania officials and operatives, all of whom declined to speak on the record, said the big decision for Sestak’s campaign will be whether to spend most of his cash buying TV time in the expensive Philadelphia media market. Significant broadcast buys in the city carry a hefty price tag of around $800,000 per week; however, the market covers almost half of the state’s Democratic primary voters.

Brotherly Love at What Cost?

Given Specter’s well-established base in the Philadelphia region, it’s doubtful that Sestak’s money could be spent effectively in that market. According to the most recent polling on the race from Quinnipiac University, 66 percent of voters in the Philadelphia area have not heard of Sestak while only 13 percent of voters have not heard of Specter.

Most of the operatives interviewed for this story said Sestak should forgo broadcast television in the Philadelphia media market. They argued he should instead buy cable only in the suburbs and then purchase significant television time in cheaper markets that have a high concentration of Democratic primary voters, such as Pittsburgh and Scranton.

“If I were him, I wouldn’t try to run any television in Philadelphia at all,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic operative. “I would try to use some of that money for a field operation in Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania, and try to run your TV in other markets that are less expensive.”

Another Democratic strategist suggested Sestak should buy time outside of Philadelphia for the last six weeks of the campaign, along with targeted cable in the Lehigh Valley, then blast away at Specter in the Philadelphia market in the last couple weeks before the primary.
“I would spend most of my money in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and northeast Pennsylvania, because you get the most bang for your buck here,” said the Democratic operative. “Arlen Specter is where he’s at, so you don’t have to worry about people knowing who Arlen Specter is.”

There’s also a question of when Sestak should start to spend his campaign funds. Former Rep. Pat Toomey was already on television at this point in 2004, when he almost defeated Specter in the GOP primary by spending just over $5 million on the race.

Toomey started his official media campaign with cable and radio three months before the primary, and he only bought time on broadcast TV in Johnstown and Harrisburg about two months before the primary.

The campaign bought airtime in the state’s two biggest markets, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, about seven weeks before the primary.

It should also be noted that Specter still has a large cash-on-hand advantage over Sestak. He had about $8.7 million in the bank at the end of December, although he will likely save much of that for his general election unless he is forced to spend it in the primary. Sestak, meanwhile, recently told Roll Call that he would use every penny in the primary if he needs to.

“This will go to the wire and we don’t expect to see at lot of movement until the last few weeks,” Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said. “With more cash on hand than any Senate challenger in the country or than anyone has ever raised against Specter, we have set the stage for the closing weeks of the campaign and for our message to take hold with our final efforts, including media.”

Message Mishmash

When Specter announced last April that he was switching parties to run for re-election as a Democrat, many political operatives thought the narrative of a primary campaign against him would write itself. After decades of supporting Republicans, the visual images of Specter putting his arm around former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and President George W. Bush would make damaging TV ads that turn off Democratic voters.

It’s still somewhat unclear what message Sestak will turn to for his TV campaign and whether it can be effective enough to pull him across the finish line. With seven weeks to go, Sestak has yet to zero in on a single campaign message — leading one Democratic official to accuse him of not being “ready for prime time.”

“He tends to think so much and be all over the map,” said one Democratic official backing Specter. “You want to focus laser-like on some vulnerability and pound it, and if he does that, he might just be able to turn the tide around here.”

Part of Sestak’s disjointed campaign message likely has to do with his campaign staff, which has seen significant turnover, including the departure of several top aides already in the short campaign. Specter’s campaign has accused Sestak of paying the majority of his staff less than minimum wage (an accusation that news organizations have confirmed) except for his top staff, which includes his brother and sister.

This Group Knows Upsets

Several operatives noted that the most promising aspects of Sestak’s bid is his media consultant, the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group, which is responsible for leading Gov. Ed Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Sestak and many other Democrats in the state to victory. The firm, which includes principals Neil Oxman, Doc Sweitzer and J.J. Balaban, has worked for every Specter opponent since 1992.
The Campaign Group is also currently working for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the frontrunner in the state’s competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary. Onorato’s campaign aired its first TV ad this week.

The firm has guided several come-from-behind victories in Democratic primaries, including Rendell and Nutter, with breakthrough advertising.

The firm even boasts a special section for their “underdog candidates” on their Web site. The list includes 2009 Democratic New York mayoral nominee Bill Thompson, who came surprisingly close to defeating popular Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) in the most expensive media market in the country.

“His media consultants are a bunch of really smart guys, and if past is prologue for their strategy, they’re going to try to keep his powder dry until the last possible minute so they can go up as aggressively as possible and sustain it,” said one Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania.