Primaries may impact the fortunes of Obama's White House

By Michael D. Shear
Monday, May 17, 2010; 2:07 PM

President Obama plans to do his best to ignore the primary voting Tuesday, traveling to Youngstown, Ohio, for another attempt to focus attention on jobs created by the Recovery Act.

But a smattering of important races across the country could have an impact on the fortunes of Obama's White House, especially as the president's political advisers prepare for the general election in November.

Perhaps no race has as much symbolic significance for Obama as the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania between incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak. According to the most recent polls, the two are locked in a virtual tie as they go into Tuesday's voting.

A Specter loss would be viewed by many as a defeat for Obama, even though the president remains highly popular among Pennsylvania's Democrats. That's because Obama was personally involved in wooing Specter to the Democratic Party and promised support in his bid to stay in the Senate. One of the final ads Specter is running features the senator visiting Obama.

The White House signaled more than a week ago that the president would not make another campaign trip for Specter in the final days of the primary race, perhaps wanting to avoid a repeat of the presidential-visit-followed-by-loss sequence that occurred in January when Republican Scott Brown won the open Senate seat in Massachusetts just days after Obama campaigned there for Democrat Martha Coakley.

But a win by Sestak may not offer any lasting damage for Obama. He campaigned as a supporter of the president's, and the congressman could turn out to be a better candidate in the fall against the Republican nominee.

If Specter loses -- or even if he wins by a tiny margin -- it could foreshadow difficulties for all incumbents, as further evidence that voters are fed up with those in power. It would also be an indication of the difficult prospects for party-switchers; Obama is asking many Democrats in Pennsylvania to support Specter after they had spent years campaigning and voting against him.

White House officials are predictably playing down the significance of a Specter loss. And a Sestak win could be a positive sign for Obama, signaling that the left wing of the Democratic Party is energized enough to help secure victory for its preferred candidates. (Sestak used ads linking Specter to Bush as his closing argument.)

Obama aides, meanwhile, point to a different election in Pennsylvania on Tuesday as the more important barometer of electoral winds: the special election to replace the late John P. Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

"That's the biggest deal," said one top White House adviser.

In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain won that district -- which voted for John Kerry in 2004 -- suggesting that Republicans should have a relatively easy time picking up that seat.

If the Democrat, Mark Critz, wins there, expect the White House to crow about how the Republican tide has peaked and is starting to fizzle.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company