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Sestak’s election boat runs aground

FOGELSVILLE, Pa. — Pat Toomey, the laconic conservative who helped shove Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party, triumphed Tuesday in one of the country’s hardest-fought U.S. Senate races.

Buoyed by a nationwide Republican surge that resulted in the GOP gaining several seats in the Senate and likely control of the U.S. House, Mr. Toomey defeated former Admiral and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware County.

“The voters of the commonwealth came together to give me this extraordinary responsibility to take back our government and change the direction we’re on,” Mr. Toomey said during a 15-minute victory speech. “Today we send a simple message to the establishment in Washington: We’re tired of what’s been going on down there. We’re tired of it, and we’re going to chart a new course. We’re going to grow this economy. We’re going to create jobs. We’re going to reduce the debt and the deficit, and in the process we’re going to create a more promising future for our kids and grandkids.”

He promised to help create a booming economic recovery, to get spending under control and to limit government’s role in people’s lives.

“Wealth and opportunity and prosperity come from ordinary men and women who get up every day to go to work,” not from a government that redistributes wealth, he said.

Mr. Toomey cautioned his supporters against viewing his win as a partisan victory, saying he couldn’t have won without votes from Democrats and independents.

“We’re all Americans and I will be a senator for all Pennsylvanians,” he said, as a cascade of red, white and blue balloons was released from netting over his head.

Mr. Toomey, 48, who lives outside Allentown and represented the Lehigh Valley for three terms in the U.S. House as a crusader against taxes and spending, began his quest for the Senate seat in 2004, when he narrowly lost a Republican primary challenge against Mr. Specter.

Mr. Toomey left public office but remained active in Washington, running the corporate-backed lobby group the Club for Growth, which advocates for lower taxes and is best-known for challenging GOP moderates from the right. At the start of 2009, Mr. Toomey was rumored as a gubernatorial candidate — but then the stimulus happened.

Mr. Specter, along with two other Senate moderates, crossed the aisle in February 2009 to vote for the $814 billion rescue that he insists was necessary to forestall a second Great Depression. Republicans were furious, the state party all but abandoned Mr. Specter and polls showed him badly trailing Mr. Toomey in a Republican primary. So in April 2009, Mr. Specter became a Democrat, and was welcomed in a ceremony at the White House as the crucial soon-to-be 60th vote.

President Barack Obama and Senate leaders, though, were unable to clear the Democratic primary field, as Mr. Sestak — a second-termer who had been courted to run against Mr. Specter — refused to yield.

Mr. Sestak, 58, ran a frenetic, at times scatterbrained campaign that broke through in the final week with an ad showing a clip of Mr. Specter saying his flip “will allow me to be re-elected” — words emblematic of the Sestak argument of principle vs. politics. On a low-turnout day, Mr. Sestak was a convincing primary winner.

But Mr. Toomey, with little to fear in his primary, remained the front-runner, due in part to an aggressive fund-raising operation that topped $14 million by campaign’s end.

Flanked by outside conservative groups that pumped millions into election spending this year — after the U.S. Supreme Court loosened the rules on outside spending in January — Mr. Toomey ran television ads virtually unopposed throughout the summer months.

Mr. Sestak, who had to replenish his funds after the primary, responded with an advertising blitz beginning in September that again included a clever spot from Philadelphia’s The Campaign Group in the final weeks in which Mr. Sestak likened his bailout and stimulus votes to picking up dog poop.

The candidates offered stark contrasts for Pennsylvania’s voters, agreeing on little in matters of public policy. Each sought to portray the other as an extremist and while offering conciliatory rhetoric, neither backed down from the core conservative and progressive policies they advocated.

Mr. Toomey compiled an arch-conservative voting record in the House and then worked to purge moderates from the GOP.

Mr. Sestak backed every major initiative of the Obama administration, even advocating for a stronger health care reform bill with a government-run “public option” and a more expensive stimulus.

The president, vice president and first lady hit the trail on Mr. Sestak’s behalf in the final weeks, in the hopes of boosting turnout.

A couple hundred Sestak supporters gathered Tuesday in the ballroom of the Ardmore Hotel in Delaware County, drained from a night of nervous returns-watching, to cheer their candidate, who emerged shortly after midnight to concede.

“If someone said to me, start it all over again and you knew how the ending was going to be, start that year-and-a-half again, I’d do it even knowing the ending in a heartbeat,” said Mr. Sestak, grinning and gracious in defeat. “I just can’t even begin to tell you what I learned. Pennsylvanians, they’re something.”

Daniel Malloy: or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC. Tracie Mauriello: or 717-787-2141. Follow her on Twitter at pgPoliTweets.

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