Despite 30 years in the Senate, during which he built a substantial pro-Israel record, outgoing U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter saw his support erode in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh where concentrations of Jewish voters live.
Specter lost to U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Montgomery County, 46 percent to 54 percent, the apparent victim of an anti-incumbent mood. Sestak will face former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who easily won the Republican primary in the November general election.
While Specter squeezed out a victory in and around Squirrel Hill, he lost in almost every suburban municipality, borough or township that has a substantial Jewish population.
So how did Jewish Democrats in western Pennsylvania vote in Tuesday’s senatorial primary? Did they stick with the incumbent, Specter, or did they go with the challenger, Sestak?
Since Jews live all over the county, an exact count is impossible to obtain, but The Chronicle looked at seven districts and municipalities — Pittsburgh’s 14th Ward, Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon, Scott Township, Upper St. Clair, Monroeville and White Oak — where Jews have had a traditional and official presence, to get a rough idea of how we voted.
The numbers are based on the canvass report, which is available at the official Allegheny County Web site. These results, of course, are unofficial until the Allegheny County Board of Elections certifies them.
Countywide, Sestak won with 81,255 votes to Specter’s 72,364.
The highest concentration of Jewish voters remains in the city, specifically in the 14th Ward, which includes Squirrel Hill and parts of surrounding neighborhoods. There, Specter narrowly won with 3,461 votes to 3,386 for Sestak.
Specter also won in Fox Chapel, although by just six votes. There, he beat Sestak 288 to 282.
But the veteran politician lost everywhere else in our unofficial sampling.
• Monroeville, Sestak won with 1,857 to Specter’s 1,724.
• Mt. Lebanon: Sestak 2211; Specter, 2011.
• Scott Township: Sestak, 1180; Specter, 975.
• Upper St. Clair: Sestak 950; Specter, 760.
• White Oak: Sestak 688; Specter, 475.
Specter, who is Jewish, had a solid pro-Israel record, as well as a history of building bridges with some of Israel’s long-time enemies. He maintained ties with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Asad’s son and current president, Bashar.
Sestak, a former U.S. Navy Admiral, ran with endorsement of J Street, which bills itself as a pro-peace, pro-Israel organization. He devotes a page on his Web site to his pro-Israel record, noting that as an admiral in the Navy, he led a 2003 mission to integrate the U.S. and Israeli radar systems, and listing his pro-Israel votes.
But Sestak drew fire in the final days of the primary for signing on to a letter earlier this year urging Israel to ease the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip and for agreeing in 2007 to speak to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that has hardline Islamist roots but has moderated its postures in recent years.
Specter drew the ire of many Democrats and Republicans last year when, after 44 years in the GOP, he announced he was jumping to the Democratic Party. He said he was increasingly at odds with the Republicans, but political observers noted he was unlikely to defeat Toomey in the Republican primary following his support for President Obama’s stimulus plan.
Toomey has sharply criticized the Obama administration for tensions with Israel over settlement building.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. JTA contributed to this story.)