Pennsylvania Democrats in a Quandary Over 2016 Senate Race

May 29, 2015 — The Senate majority will again be up for grabs next year, and the important Pennsylvania race is putting Democratic Party leaders in a precarious position. With the Keystone State voting history of favoring Democrats in presidential election years -– the last Republican presidential nominee to win the state was George H.W. Bush back in 1988 –- failing to convert the Pennsylvania Senate seat could well dampen any hopes the party has of recapturing the majority they lost in 2014.

Despite holding winning 2010 Republican candidate Pat Toomey to a 51-49 percent margin, Democratic leaders are open in their desire for a different 2016 nominee than former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA-7). But, two new occurrences only deepen the hole they seem to be digging for themselves.

Wednesday, their top recruiting prospect, Montgomery County Commission chairman Josh Shapiro announced he would not be running for the Senate, saying that he “didn’t want to come Washington or be a legislator.” On top of that, a new Public Policy Polling survey (May 21-24; 799 registered Pennsylvania voters) finds Sestak doing best against Toomey among six Democrats tested, trailing him only 42-38 percent.

Normally, such a poll would be considered good news for the challenging party, but Sestak’s flawed early campaign and his admitted poor relations with the national and state party leadership suggest that his effort against the incumbent will lack staying power.

The PPP data shows Sen. Toomey in a weaker position than other pollsters have in the past few weeks. Two surveys in early May projected the first-term incumbent to be well over 50 percent on ballot test questions with strong approval ratings.

Typically, Public Policy Polling skews negative on personal approval scores, and this survey is no different. Toomey records a 30:37 percent job approval ratio, which is obviously upside-down and much worse than numbers other pollsters are finding. For example, Harper Polling (May 6-7) scored him 54:32 percent positive to negative and Quinnipiac University’s late March poll (March 17-28) found the senator possessing a similar 44:23 percent favorable ratio.

For the eight individuals tested at the beginning of the questionnaire, seven produced either even or upside-down favorability ratings. The only one with a positive score -– and that was only 24:22 percent — was none other than Sestak. Negative opinions were registered for President Obama, former Gov. Ed Rendell — who normally scores well on such poll questions — and all of the potential Democratic Senate candidates. But the two officeholders asked about at the end of the survey, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D), both curiously registered positive ratings.

The poll clearly skews negative and could be a reason that Toomey only lands in the mid-40s against all potential opponents. Supporting this claim is President Obama’s job approval rating since it appears at odds with his national numbers.

While the two pollsters, Gallup and Rasmussen Reports, who conduct daily presidential approval tests both find the president dipping into negative numbers, it is nowhere close to the 38:54 percent ratio that PPP contracts for him in the Keystone State, a place the president twice carried with sizable margins. Gallup projects Obama with a 44:51 percent national approval rating, while Rasmussen Reports detects a 46:53 percent score.

It is safe to say that Sen. Toomey continues to hold an advantage in what will be a critical 2016 Senate race, and it is likely greater than this current Public Policy Polling survey suggests.

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