There have been a handful of allegations of Tea Party impostorism across the country during this election cycle, but nowhere has this occurred more frequently than in Pennsylvania, where Democrats have apparently been working to prop up droves of third-party candidates in the skulduggerous hope of siphoning votes away from Republicans.
In Delaware County, self-avowed Tea Party activist Jim Schneller mounted a third-party bid with the help of Democrats who had worked for House candidate Bryan Lentz, who is challenging Republican Rep. Pat Meehan next Wednesday.
As it happens, a dozen Delaware County Democratic Party activists obtained nearly all of the necessary signatures for him to qualify for the ballot, records of the Pennsylvania Secretary of State show.
Some of these activists work or have worked in one capacity or another for the campaign of Schneller's opponent, Bryan Lentz, a two-term Democratic state legislator. At least five of the people associated with Lentz's campaign who gathered signatures for him also did so for Schneller, according to records and interviews.
Lentz, meanwhile, admits that he knew about it at some point. "If somebody has already made the decision to run, I don't think that 'helping' with the process of signature petitions was improper," Lentz said.
This Democratically assisted third-party bid is but one of a handful of similar cases that have unfolded in the Keystone State in 2010.
There was John Krupa, the Tea Party gubernatorial candidate who could have played a spoiler in the race between Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato.
Local Tea Partiers were confused by Krupa's candidacy, according to the state GOP, and it was later revealed that Onorato-backing unions collected signatures to get him onto the ballot, while another Krupa petition circulator was paid $1,000 by Onorato's campaign. Tea Partiers contested Krupa's signatures and got him thrown off in August.
And then there's Peter DeStefano, a Tea Party candidate for the competitive 3rd Congressional District, where former Eagles tackle Jon Runyan is challenging Democratic Rep. John Adler.
DeStefano's presence on the ballot is the result of a plan dreamed up by a Democratic strategist and executed with the help of Adler's campaign manager, according to the Courier-Post, which cites numerous unnamed Democrats who paint a pretty clear picture of what happened, as Democratic volunteers gathered signatures to qualify DeStefano for the race after the plan was pitched to them. Adler has said he didn't know anything about this scheme; DeStefano has denied being a fraud. Runyan has been attacking Adler relentlessly over the scandal.
We also can't leave out the case of Tom Lingenfelter, who mounted a third-party bid in the 8th District House race between Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and Republican Mike Fitzpatrick.
Lingenfelter, it was discovered, got on the ballot with modest help (148 signatures) gathered by former Murphy interns who, at the time, worked for the state Democratic Party, and another 151 signatures from a former Democratic campaign manager for a state lelislature candidate. He was tossed off the ballot in August.
"There's nothing against a third party getting on the ballot, but I think Pennsylvania voters are smart enough to know when someone is trying to manipulate" the system, said Pennsylvania GOP spokesman Mike Barley.
Tea Party activists have been the first ones to notice surprise candidates and investigate, Barley said. "We haven't had to" ferret out propped-up candidates, Barley said. "The real Tea Party folks have come to us with them."
Calling these candidate "impostors" perhaps assumes too much about them. If someone is willing to help get a candidate on he ballot, who's to blame that candidate for accepting the help?
In some of these cases, however, Democratic conspirators seem largely responsible for third-party candidates being involved in these races at all.
It's not a bad strategy. There's nothing illegal about a third-party candidate getting on the ballot--and it's in a shrewd Democrat's best interest to encourage a third-party candidate who has already decided to run. Tea Partiers can siphon votes from Republicans. It's a tough election year, after all, and Democrats have to take all the small edges they can get.
But it can become a liability when you get caught. Runyan, for instance, has been handing it to Rep. Adler all over the place, publicly saying that he'd ask Adler for an apology, but that it would be pointless to do so because Adler's word has no value. The controversy could hurt Adler more on Election Day than DeStefano's spoiler candidacy will help him.
We won't know what effect this Tea-Party-plant business will have on these races until next Wednesday. But the least we can say is that when Republicans accuse Democrats in Pennsylvania of election "shenanigans," it's hard to argue that they're wrong to cry foul.