Anxious about a candidate considered to be an unreliable maverick and a political liability, Democratic Party leaders have undertaken a quiet, intensive search in recent months to recruit a serious primary challenger to former Rep. Joe Sestak, the party's Senate nominee in 2010 who is again running for Pennsylvania's Senate seat.
The effort has involved former congressmen, state senators, county leaders and, recently, even a prominent district attorney. Their anxieties are being driven by party officials, who are concerned that Sestak could cost Democrats a must-win state in 2016. They've yet to turn up a successful alternative, but in their telling, it's only a matter of time before a new challenger—one with the backing of the party establishment—enters the race.
"[Sestak's] not scaring anyone," said Bob Brady, a congressman from Philadelphia and behind-the-scenes power player in Pennsylvania Democratic politics. "He's not clearing the field because he's running."
The concern over Sestak is multifaceted. Party insiders fear he's a loose cannon and doubt he will listen to the advice of political professionals. That's a necessity in what will be a hard-fought race against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, an outspoken fiscal conservative who has effectively shifted to the political center since taking office in 2011.
But there's also a personal animus toward Sestak, known to party leaders as a political loner who defied the Democratic establishment in 2010 when he ran against Arlen Specter. That year, against the advice of party leaders, he challenged the party-switching senator in the primary—and prevailed, even though President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee were against him.
Sestak won the primary, but went on to lose narrowly to Toomey. It's a scenario that Democratic leaders worry will happen again if he wins the nomination again next year.
"In my estimation, if Joe Sestak is the nominee in 2016 for U.S. Senate, we will once again lose to Pat Toomey," said T.J. Rooney, who was state Democratic Party chairman when Sestak ran in 2010.
Whether brokers like Brady and Rooney will be successful—or even whether their efforts are a good idea in the first place—is a heated topic of debate among many Pennsylvania Democrats. Already, a handful of potentially strong candidates have decided not to run, daunted at the dual challenges of a bruising primary against Sestak and an expensive general election against the well-funded Toomey. Futhermore, some Democratic strategists remain convinced the former House member and Navy admiral is the party's best bet to win next November despite the animosity between him and party leaders—especially if he can avoid a costly primary.
That's left the party in a vexing situation, with some worried that efforts to torpedo Sestak now will prove feckless and only damage him for next fall.
"What this highlights is there is always a bit of distance between what party leaders want and what voters want," said Dan Fee, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. "This is a guy who, in a terrible year, barely lost. At the very least, he starts ahead."
Democrats have cast a wide net in their search for an alternative. Tester, the newly minted chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has called Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald to gauge his interest in running, according to sources familiar with party recruitment. DSCC officials have met with Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown who briefly ran for governor in 2014, about a campaign. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have encouraged former Rep. Chris Carney and state Sen. Vincent Hughes to run.
All of these sales pitches came after most of the party establishment was set to rally behind Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who represents the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs. Shapiro had indicated he was interested in a campaign, but many insiders no longer believe Shapiro will run.
Fitzgerald, in an interview with National Journal, said he won't run, either. And it's unclear if the others will ultimately launch a candidacy or if they would be a serious challenge to Sestak anyway. But in recent weeks, another intriguing name has surfaced as a potential candidate, someone who until recently was on few people's radars: Seth Williams, the district attorney of Philadelphia.
The 48-year-old, Philadelphia's first black district attorney, told National Journal he's focused on his current job. But he didn't discount the possibility that he might be interested in seeking higher office.
"Who wouldn't want to be a U.S. senator?" Williams said. "I really believe if we want to make the city safer, to prevent crime, we need to create more early-child education opportunities, and increase economic opportunities for individuals and businesses. And being a senator would allow me a great opportunity to let me do all of those things." He added: "I'm a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, so I take orders well. If they give me a call, I'll listen."
Williams has a profile that could excite some Democrats: A former student leader at Penn State, he's served in the military and tangled with embattled state Attorney General Kathleen Kane over a public-corruption investigation into fellow Democrats. Just this week, he's blasted the state's newly elected Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for issuing a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
But along with his centrist credentials, Williams could become the first black senator in Pennsylvania's history—which could motivate liberal and African-American voters to turn out in a race many Democrats see as a base election anyway.
Brady, the longtime chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said Williams has been a "great" district attorney. "I would like to see him to take a good look at it, and if he did, I certainly would be willing to support him," he said.
At the moment, DSCC officials are still mulling over their options. A spokesman acknowledged that Tester called to inquire about other candidates, but indicated that the committee is still open to backing Sestak.
"Senator Tester was simply doing his due diligence in Pennsylvania as he is in all of our states by talking to elected officials and community leaders to solicit advice and get a sense of what's happening on the ground," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the group. "There are number of great potential candidates in Pennsylvania who can beat Pat Toomey, and that includes Joe Sestak."
Some outside observers coudl be confused as to why Democrats are so reluctant to back Sestak. He won a swing-state suburban Philadelphia seat in 2006, and he defended his support for Obamacare in 2010 by arguing that he wanted every parent to have the same treatment for their children that his daughter received when she battled brain cancer as a toddler.
He lost to Toomey in an otherwise horrific year for Democrats by a mere 2 percentage points, or 75,000 votes, in part because his military experience was a major political asset with blue-collar voters in western Pennsylvania. He ran well ahead of the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, who lost his race by 9 points.
By all accounts, he's a tireless worker who won his underdog campaign against Specter because he relentlessly courted local Democrats in even the smallest of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. As part of his aggressive outreach, he's already traveled to all of the state's counties again since losing the last election. And his background as an admiral—particularly one who has been critical of President Obama—could help at a time when foreign policy might play a large role in the campaign.
"Joe has a lot of that independent streak to him, and that doesn't always play well in party politics," said Kathy Dahlkemper, who served with Sestak in the House and now is the chief executive for Erie County. "But for the voters, it often can play very well." (Dahlkemper, who other Democrats have mentioned would be a strong possible Sestak alternative, said she likes her onetime colleague and won't run for the Senate.)
Democrats also say openly that they don't think they need a top-tier candidate to beat Toomey next year. The party's presidential nominees have each won Pennsylvania since 1992—President Obama won there in 2012 by more than 5 points. In an era in which Senate candidates are increasingly tied to the performance of their party's presidential nominees, that might be enough to defeat Toomey.
"We're probably going to have Hillary Clinton on top of the ticket," said Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive. "I just think bodes well for any Democratic nominee to win that seat."
It's also unclear if the Democratic establishment could defeat Sestak even if they found a viable candidate. He defeated Specter in 2010 despite opposition from all corners of the party's apparatus, and it's unlikely any attempt to defeat him in 2016 would include such a comprehensive effort from party leaders.
But concerns run deep within Democratic circles about Sestak's political operation. He declined to work with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's coordinated campaign in 2010, and many of the staff on his last Senate campaign were members of his family.
"On paper, the guy has a great profile. How often to do you get a retired admiral running for office?" said one Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly. "That's the frustrating part. He's got a great story to tell, a least on paper, but there are serious concerns that he's going to blow a very good opportunity here."
And to some Democrats, it's personal. It's not just that Sestak ran against Specter despite the party's wishes. In 2012, he endorsed a primary challenger to conservative Democratic Rep. Tim Holden, helping now-Rep. Matt Cartwright defeat the well-liked incumbent. He also helped out a write-in challenger to former Rep. Allyson Schwartz.
These have contributed to the impression among some Democrats that Sestak isn't a team player and is unwilling to listen to the advice of others.
"He still thinks he's an admiral. And he thinks everyone should stand up and salute him," said one Democratic officeholder.
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