Pennsylvania Senate race to be Obama referendum

Holly Bailey

All politics is local — except when it's not. In dismaying news for Democratic Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Joe Sestak, a new poll finds that most Pennsylvania voters in this fall's election plan to cast their ballots based on their feelings about President Obama.

A Franklin and Marshall College survey of likely Pennsylvania voters found that Republican Pat Toomey leads Sestak by 9 points, 40 percent to 31 percent. But the poll also found that the race to replace Arlen Specter (whom Sestak defeated in this summer's Democratic primary) is increasingly less about either candidate than about  Obama. Three out of five Toomey voters say they consider their vote to be against Obama. Among Sestak supporters, roughly the same margin — 57 percent — say they will cast their ballots in support of Obama.

Why is that bad news for Sestak and other Democrats in the state? Because Obama is far less popular in Pennsylvania than he was a year ago. According to Franklin and Marshall, Obama's approval rating in the state is at 37 percent — more than 20 points below where  it was 20 months ago, when he took office. Just 3 out of 10 Pennsylvanians say their state is on the right track — the lowest number in 15 years.

And in a trend that  parallels what's happening in the rest of the country, Republicans lead Democrats when it comes to voter enthusiasm. To beat Toomey, Sestak will not only need to turn out his Democratic base; he'll also need to win over independents and swing voters, who, at the moment, favor Toomey. But Obama's unpopularity will make Sestak's job even harder. Only a third of the poll respondents who voted for the president in 2008 say they will vote; meanwhile, 50 percent of former John McCain supporters in the state say they plan to turn out for the November midterms.

(Photo of Sestak by Matt Rourke/AP)