A veteran political observer’s take on chronicling the critical Pat Toomey-Joe Sestak Senate race of 2010

In this Q&A, Temple University author Hal Gullan discusses his experiences on the 2010 Senate Campaign trail—the subject of his new book Toomey’s Triumph

Q: You have followed politics closely all your life. What’s the appeal of covering elections and getting to know your candidates?

A: Beyond politics being the lifeblood of this republic, following an election as it transpires has all the excitement of following a sports team with which you identify, only with profoundly more significance––and enhanced by getting to know some of the players personally.

Q: Toomey’s Triumph is not an authorized campaign tract. It is a very personal, unbiased reflection on the 2010 Senate election. How did you develop your approach to the book?

A: This is a book of my reflections. I asked questions during meetings with the Toomey team, but never intruded with suggestions. I was a highly interested observer, even sometimes a companion of staff members, but not a partisan.  To get the feel of a political campaign, you need to look inside it. What are they trying to stress, where, and with whom? How do events develop and strategies change, as viewed through their headquarters? Inevitably you develop an empathy with those you are close to, while trying to objectively portray their equally committed opposition.

Q: You could not have known when you started work on Toomey’s Triumph that the election would end the way it did. Why did you choose this particular election to cover?

A: I agreed with Chris Matthews that the 2010 Toomey-Sestak senatorial race would be “the most riveting in the nation”––what I termed a microcosm of the great national divide, pitting an impressive Republican conservative against an impressive Democratic liberal. It was clear from the outset that the outcome would be close, but the race might rise above others as a more compelling contest. Who wouldn’t want to write about it?

Q: How did you get access into the Toomey campaign? Would you have been a “fly on the wall” in the Sestak campaign if Toomey’s camp had turned you down?

A: Initially I was considering trying to create this book from the inside of all three campaigns.  But I wrote month-by-month as the events transpired. Because the Toomey people were most receptive, working through them seemed the best approach; and subsequently I signed a confidentiality agreement with Pat Toomey.

Q: You describe in detail, the extensive fundraising efforts of the candidates. Do you believe that “whoever has the most money, wins the election”?

A: Even in these times, money does not always determine the outcome of elections.  After the Democratic primary, Sestak’s financial support increased. Ultimately more money was spent to defeat Pat Toomey than any other Republican candidate running in 2010. Toomey’s own resources, however, were substantial throughout.

Q: Your book is a real primer on what it takes to get elected. You write about the demands an election has on a candidate—the stamina needed to run, as well as how the candidates appear in the media and in person at major events. What did you observe watching these competitors?

A: There was a profound contrast, not only between the ideologies of Toomey and Sestak, but also in their styles of campaigning. Both were inexhaustible, but Toomey “never seemed to tire or perspire.” Sestak appeared almost frenetic, appealingly earnest, but determined to leave nothing unsaid and no hand ungrasped. Toomey sometimes seemed almost too low-key, but invariably was better organized, controlled, concise, and consistent in both his manner and message.

Q: Toomey’s Triumph also reveals the importance of television ads and competent staffers. Where there any particularly “bad” moments for the candidates that you observed that made for particularly good chapters of your book?

A: Sestak’s TV spot depicting Specter in the Democratic primary as only interested in preserving his own job was devastating.  The most memorable TV ad in the general election was Sestak’s comparing his dog’s “poop” to Toomey’s claims—but it backfired. The really extreme advertising was from outside groups. Again, Toomey’s more appealing approach, featuring his family, was very consistent. He pictured Sestak not as evil, but as simply too liberal for Pennsylvania. It is ironic: Toomey was initially considered too conservative for this Commonwealth, but the overriding economic issues rendered his message more timely.

Q: Much of the book recounts the closing gaps between the candidates. How much poll work did you do, and what are your thought on the polls

A: I watched the polls daily and tried to comprehend them, although I felt they generally gave Toomey too wide a lead, relying on their face-saving “margin of error” and were most relevant when they focused on “likely” voters. As time went on, I relied more on Toomey consultant Jon Lerner’s daily internal polls. Lerner correctly confirmed in e-mails to me, “It’s close, but we are still on the right side of close.”

Q: Have you stayed in touch with Toomey since his election, and have you been supportive of his work as Senator?

A: Pat Toomey and I are not intimates. We don’t exchange correspondence. My meetings with him during the campaign were entirely pleasant, but infrequent and brief. I think he went along with the book because his staff liked the idea. I have heard subsequently from people on the Toomey team, many of whom are now on his Washington and Pennsylvania staffs.  I am encouraged by Senator Toomey’s conciliatory attempts to reach across the aisle for potential areas of compromise, rare in these times. I believe he will become a major legislative leader.

Q: What did you learn covering 2010 that you would tell candidates running this year?

A: I’ve come to feel that, particularly in close elections, the apparent demeanor of a candidate can be at least as significant as his/ her ideology. By every measure, the overwhelming concerns of the electorate in 2010 were the economy and jobs. Unfortunately, they still are –– rendering the message of “Toomey’s Triumph” even more relevant today in 2012.

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