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Tight Toomey-Sestak Senate rematch in Pennsylvania eyed in 2016

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Former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania wants to challenge U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016. Toomey beat Sestak in 2010 by 2 percentage points.
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James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, spoke with Tribune-Review editors and reporters in March.

Political analysts predict a tight race for Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey if former Rep. Joe Sestak is his Democratic challenger, and they say the winner of the 2016 presidential race could determine the outcome.

If a Republican presidential candidate wins Pennsylvania for the first time since 1988, Toomey could easily win a second term in the Senate, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia.

“If it’s very close. Toomey probably has a path to victory, but if the Democrat wins by more than (President) Obama won in 2012 — roughly 5.5 points — Toomey is in deep trouble,” Kondik said.

Toomey, 53, a Lehigh Valley businessman in office since 2011, beat Sestak, 63, a Delaware County politician and retired Navy admiral, by 2 percentage points to become the state’s junior senator during a good year for GOP candidates. Both are directing campaigns toward middle-class voters.

Toomey told the Tribune-Review that he’s prepared for a spirited race.

“Pennsylvania is a competitive state, whichever party you’re in,” he said.

Sestak has declared his candidacy for the seat, with a campaign theme that “America is exceptional, but its leaders are not.” His Leadership for a Better America website says the Senate “has let our country careen from crisis to crisis, not wanting to be accountable for its deeds … or lack of … but only for its intentions.”

Though he declined an interview, Sestak told the Trib in an email that he wants to help the middle class, small businesses and veterans.

“I want to advance individual opportunity so everyone can contribute to the advancement of America,” he wrote.

Kondik rates their likely race as “a toss-up” in the Crystal Ball newsletter in which the university’s Center for Politics keeps tabs on national elections.

Republicans will take majority control of the Senate, 54 to 46, when the 114th Congress is sworn in in January. In the 2016 election, the GOP will have to defend 24 seats and Democrats, 10.

Name recognition

When Sestak won the 7th Congressional District seat in 2006, which he gave up to run against Toomey four years later, he was among Democrats who ended 12 years of GOP power in the Capitol.

Sestak has the advantage over any other potential primary candidate because voters know him, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

“If we are looking at a rematch, I suspect it will be a tight race again, with the presidential contest playing a significant role in the outcome,” Borick said.

Toomey, who has emerged as a leader on economic and budgetary issues, said he intends to devote the next year to bipartisan legislation to address issues Obama might sign, such as tax reform and trade.

“We want to work towards issues that can get support on both sides, that will help the middle class and their pocketbooks,” he said.

Sestak wrote in his email that he does not believe Toomey is sincere about wanting to help the middle class, small businesses or veterans.

In the Navy, Sestak commanded an aircraft carrier battle group in Afghanistan and Iraq, his website reminds voters. His campaign talks about American character and includes essays on the common good and fiscal responsibility.

“We must be Americans before we are partisans,” his website states.

Toomey, a former congressman in the 15th District, championed economic growth and fiscal discipline there and as president of the Washington-based Club for Growth, a conservative policy group he headed. He owned a small restaurant chain in the Lehigh Valley and worked in the financial services industry.

The son of a Marine, Toomey points out on his campaign website that he represents a state with one of the largest veteran populations. He wrote a budget in each of his first two years in the Senate that increased spending for veterans by almost $40 billion, and he voted to repeal a reduction in military retirees’ cost-of-living adjustment, his website states.

Split-ticket trend

Only twice has Pennsylvania had two Democrats in the Senate at once, Kondik said: in 2009, when Arlen Specter switched parties and Sen. Bob Casey was in his second year in office, and from 1945 to 1947 when Joe Guffey and Francis Myers served together.

Borick sees no benefit in one-party dominance for taxpayers.

“So I don’t know if there is a good sales pitch for Sestak to push that,” he said. “Remember, voters just rejected a Democratic majority in November, and Pennsylvania voters don’t mind splitting their tickets.”

Tom Wolf, a Democrat, won the governor’s race in November, but the Republican Party increased its hold on both chambers of the state legislature.

Borick thinks Pennsylvanians might vote for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, for president and still vote for Toomey, “if people feel comfortable with his positions and yet hold an affection for Clinton.”

Kondik agrees that the party of the Pennsylvania governor probably has no bearing on the U.S. Senate race; nor does the fact that Casey, re-elected in 2012, is a Democrat.

“I really think the presidential election has more bearing on this race than any other single factor,” Kondik said.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media political writer. Reach her at [email protected].

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