Sen. Specter loses to Sestak in primary, ends three-decade career

Sen. Arlen Specter lost the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nomination Tuesday, effectively ending a Senate career that spanned three decades.

Specter switched his party allegiance last year to salvage his career, but the Democratic primary electorate preferred Rep. Joe Sestak as its nominee. With 65 percent of precincts reporting, the two-term congressman had 53 percent of the vote to Specter’s 47, according to unofficial results. The Associated Press called the race for Sestak, according to MSNBC, which also projected that Sestak will win.

Sestak's win over Specter is all the more surprising because it came despite the Democratic establishment going firmly for the senator. President Barack Obama helped him raise money, appeared in his TV commercials and lent his voice to a robocall. Vice President Joe Biden also campaigned for Specter.

T.J. Rooney, chairman of the state party, campaigned with the senator in the final days, while Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) rallied supporters in and around Philadelphia to get out in support of Specter.

But Obama stayed away from Pennsylvania in the final days of the campaign, a signal many interpreted as a sign he didn't want to be seen supporting another losing candidate.

Moreover, Sestak's focus on Specter's Republican past — using footage of President George W. Bush calling Specter a "firm ally" in a TV attack ad — was an effective strategy in a Democratic primary.

In an emotional speech to supporters, Specter expressed his gratitude.

"I want to thank the president for his support, and Vice President Biden and Sen. [Bob] Casey, and an extraordinary staff in my Senate office," he said. "It's been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania."

"I'll be working very, very hard for the people of the commonwealth in the coming months," he said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, who had backed Specter, congratulated the candidates on a "hard-fought race."

"I congratulate them both on a hard-fought campaign. This race came down to the wire, but ultimately Democratic voters in Pennsylvania have decided that Congressman Sestak is the best man to fight for them in Washington," he said. "In the Senate, as he has done in the House of Representatives, Joe Sestak will stand up for the needs of Pennsylvania workers and families."

Expect the Democratic Party to rally around Sestak. Specter had pledged to support him if he won.

 This post was updated at 10:37 p.m.