Despite Candidates’ Differences, Afghan War Didn’t Factor Into Pa. Primary

Created: May 19, 2010 14:17 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

sestak Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) (Brooks Smothers/ZUMA Press)

Two things distinguished Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak in their campaign for the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nomination. The first is Specter’s decades of protean Capitol Hill experience, which Sestak effectively turned into a liability. The second is Specter’s opposition to President Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war — the only issue in the primary in which Specter could plausibly claim to be on Sestak’s left. In the end, the characterological issue mattered and the war issue didn’t.

[Security1]It wasn’t that voters actively decided that Sestak’s position on the war resonated. It was that the war was decidedly an afterthought in the race. “It has not been an issue, even though they differ on it,” said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Mary College.

The sheer absence of Afghanistan from the race is surprising for a number of reasons. First, skepticism about the merits of a war in its ninth year has surged among liberals, despite Obama’s full-throated recommitment of money and troops to Afghanistan. In Pennsylvania, the last poll taken measuring Democrats’ sentiments came shortly after Obama’s well-received announcement of the escalation, a time when his numbers bumped up nationwide, but the Quinnipiac survey from December 18 still found a third of Democrats disapproving.

Second, Specter appeared eager around that time to capitalize on his constituents’ small but noticeable unease with the war. In a November conference call with bloggers, he announced his opposition to Obama’s planned 30,000-troop increase, and pointed out that Sestak favored it.

And Sestak didn’t run away from his position, either. A retired three-star Navy admiral, Sestak took a position similar to Obama’s in a subsequent interview with TWI, favoring a troop increase and an ultimate exit strategy while matching both with skepticism about an expanding nation-building mission. In an implicit swipe at Specter, he said he would tell an antiwar Pennsylvania voter, “It’s too important for you and for Americans, and I would be giving you short shrift, at least in my experience, to take a political position rather than a national security position after I have looked at the issues.” That was perhaps the only substantive issue that actually separated the two candidates. “They divide evenly among liberal and moderate voters,” Madonna observed shortly before the balloting. Among the relevant demographics for the race — union members, urban and suburban residents — the even match persisted. But what struck a chord for Madonna is that despite Sestak’s “reasonably liberal” voting record, he said “MoveOn and the liberals have not been in the state working hard for him.”

In fact, further complicating any effort to divine any lesson for the Afghanistan war from the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, MoveOn, the largest netroots progressive organization, came out against escalation in Afghanistan last fall — but still endorsed Sestak. MoveOn’s endorsement was the result of the groups’ Pennsylvania membership strongly preferring the more-progressive Sestak, said Ilyse Hogue, the group’s director of political advocacy and communications. “We acknowledge that we had different positions on the Afghanistan surge, but MoveOn members are typically pragmatic progressives. There’s no purity test,” Hogue said in an instant message. “Our members felt that the Congressman would represent them better and would be more willing to shake up the establishment culture.”

And that turned out to be the message that Sestak used to end Specter’s Senate career, running powerful ads portraying the veteran and party-switching Senator as cravenly self-interested. MoveOn asked its 150,000 Pennsylvania members to volunteer for the campaign and vote for Sestak, but devoted more of its efforts in last night’s primaries to backing progressive Democrats running for Senate in Arkansas and Kentucky. One of those candidates won the nomination outright, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, and the other, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, forced incumbent conservative Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff next month.

Those victories are “a symbol that the base is not willing to back Dems anymore who don’t fight for progressive values and principles,” Hogue said.

Tempting as it is to read Afghanistan into that base’s decisionmaking, Madonna remains struck that in Pennsylvania, “It has not even been an issue in the course of this campaign.”