Sestak Wins Democratic Primary Over Sen. Specter

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Senator Arlen Specter, 80, lost the Democratic primary in his bid for a sixth term Tuesday night. He had switched parties last year after being a Republican for decades. Voters chose two-term Rep. Joe Sestak as the party's nominee.


Arlen Specter's defeat in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary makes him the most prominent casualty of the country's anti-incumbent mood. Specter had the backing of the White House and the state's Democratic power brokers, but it wasn't enough for the 80-year-old incumbent.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Philadelphia.

DON GONYEA: For most of this campaign, two-term congressman Joe Sestak was in a deep hole. He didn't have as much money to spend as Senator Specter. He trailed by as much 20 points in the polls. But in recent weeks, the race tightened up. Sestak exploited Specter's switch from the Republican to Democratic parties last year as an act of pure political opportunism. And suddenly last night, the challenger was his party's U.S. Senate nominee.

Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Thank you, Pennsylvania. And thank you to everyone who's here tonight.

GONYEA: For Specter, meanwhile, the unexpected loss meant a difficult and short concession speech. He said he had called congressman Sestak with his congratulations, and pledged his strong support in the general election. Then his voice choked with emotion. The senator said it had been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania over nearly half a century.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Thank you, Senator. Thank you.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): And it's been a great privilege to be in the United States Senate, and I'll be working very, very hard for the people of the commonwealth in the coming months.

GONYEA: Some of his supporters openly wept as Specter concluded with a quick thank you before exiting the room.

One reason for Sestak's win is that his supporters were far more energized and in the end, even the elements seemed to conspire against the incumbent. Rain that fell across the state yesterday meant lower turnout. Analysts say that was bad for Specter. The turnout in Specter's Philadelphia base was disappointing as well.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said last night that the recession, the hard times working people are dealing with, and high unemployment all make voters mad. And when they're mad, he said, they take it out on incumbents.

Governor ED RENDELL (Republican, Pennsylvania): You know, if you look at Arlen's 30-year career in the Senate, nobody's helped the people of Pennsylvania more in the history of this commonwealth, in my judgment. With apologies to Ben Franklin, but Ben did it before we became a state. Arlen's done it after we became a state, and Arlen did a great job. And I thought that should have outweighed the anti-incumbency feeling, but it didn't, you know. And we understand that.

GONYEA: Specter's loss also raises questions about President Obama's clout in this state, and what role the White House may play in the general election. In November, Democratic nominee Joe Sestak faces Republican Pat Toomey, a strong conservative who won his party's primary yesterday with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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