Pennsylvania’s 2010 election cycle is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in decades, with gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races taking center stage. And since several candidates in those contests are Congressmen vacating their seats, the focus on several U.S. House races has already begun to generate widespread interest.
Of particular intrigue are the political maneuverings in the Seventh District, which encompasses all of Delaware and parts of Chester and Montgomery counties. The two-term incumbent, Joe Sestak, has declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate, and will face 30-year senator Arlen Specter in a primary.
The open seat has already led to intense arm-twisting and finesse tactics by the Delaware County establishment to clear the field for its candidate on the Republican side – Pat Meehan.
Despite the jockeying, there is still only one declared candidate in the GOP race – 32 year-old self-made millionaire Steve Welch. He has already opened a campaign office, launched a detailed website, and has been telling voters and party officials alike that he is in the race to stay, regardless of party endorsement.
A potential obstacle facing Welch is that he lives in the small Montgomery County slice of the district. The 7th has always had a Representative from Delaware County, and there are those who will vote on that basis, provincial as it may be.
Given the state of the economy, however, many trivialities will go out the window as voters cope with the worst recession in decades.
Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan, who had ostensibly explored running for governor, withdrew from both that race and that of Lt. Governor last month, inexplicably making his announcement late on a Friday afternoon in August – not exactly prime time for a good PR opportunity.
In his statement, Meehan claimed that he was considering a congressional run, but stopped far short of announcing. This hedging should come as no surprise, as it was a major reason his "gubernatorial" bid never got off the ground. Rather than announcing for governor, he and his staff would spin meaningless rhetoric about his traveling the state listening to people’s concerns.
More than ever, voters are seeking bold and decisive leaders who provide direct, common-sense solutions. By playing coy and not announcing his gubernatorial run, Meehan lost significant support, especially in the fundraising category. Very few will donate to a candidate who cannot even decide whether to run.
This time, Meehan’s decision to not declare his candidacy is rooted in something much more basic: he would face a bruising primary against Welch, who, despite being new to the game, has the ability to self-fund. And that makes him very dangerous.
And if the GOP Machine didn’t view Welch as a serious threat, they would not be pulling out all the stops to get him out of the race.
Pat Meehan is the clear choice of the Delaware County pols, and will be the recipient of all the substantial power and money the Machine brings to the table. While the Delco boys have not exactly lit the world on fire with general election success (they haven’t delivered the county for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, and have lost the congressional seat and numerous state House races), they know how to win primaries. That is Meehan’s biggest asset.
But since Meehan is an untested candidate (his only "elected" position was Delaware County District Attorney, a position that, in political reality, is "appointed"), neither he nor the Machine wants a primary. As a result, a full-court press is on to get Welch out of the race – one way or another. Pressure from local, state and even national officials continues, in the hopes of clearing the field for Meehan.
Discussions have been held at the highest levels, with rumors swirling that Welch will either graciously bow out, or jump into the 6th Congressional District open seat race, which is in play after Congressman Jim Gerlach announced his bid for governor. Ironically, Gerlach’s decisiveness in announcing for governor was another major factor for Meehan’s hasty departure from that contest.
Welch has repeatedly told Freindly Fire that he is staying in the 7th District race, stating that it is his home, and that is where he will compete.
This is the smartest move Welch can make, for if he did decide to jump into the 6th, his candidacy would be over before it began, for several reasons.
First, he doesn’t live in the district. While one is legally permitted to run in a district in which he doesn’t reside, it is political suicide. He would be instantly labeled a carpet-bagging, business-as-usual opportunist trying to buy whatever congressional seat offers the least resistance. Welch would be thrown off his message of restoring fiscal sanity to Washington, and instead would find himself on the defensive for the entire campaign. And with 16-year State Representative Curt Schroder in the race to stay (he is giving up his seat), and whose district lies entirely within the 6th, Welch would face an opponent who already has a significant base of support.
While there is precedent for Pennsylvania candidates winning who moved into new districts shortly before their election (Rep. Alyson Schwartz and former Rep. Melissa Hart), they still physically moved. Even if Welch did move, he still would face the additional, and most likely insurmountable, obstacle of trying to explain his switch, since he has been so outspoken in his bid for the 7th. It is a situation from which he cannot hide.
While conventional wisdom states that Meehan will indeed run, that is far from decided. If Steve Welch, after weathering constant hounding to either drop out or run somewhere else, decides enough is enough and tells the Delco Machine that he is writing his own check for $3 million, and will raise an additional million, there is a better than even chance that Meehan will not run the gauntlet, leaving Welch unopposed.
The open question is whether Pat Meehan, more a political operative than candidate, has the stomach to engage in a tough primary. If he does, it will be a clash of political strategies. Welch will attempt to use cutting-edge technology to energize the younger base, articulating new, innovative ideas to get back on track. Meehan will rely on the strength of the Establishment, his name in the community, and the fact that he lives in the heart of Delaware County.
Should the race occur, and it would be an exciting one, November would prove to be interesting. Based on the district’s recent trends, a mild groundswell for Republicans in 2010 would give the GOP primary winner an even shot at taking back the seat.
Chris Freind, author of "Freindly Fire," is an independent columnist and investigative reporter whose readers hail from six continents, thirty countries, and all fifty states. He can be reached at [email protected]