Sestak Edges Closer to Specter Challenge

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Since 2007, rumors have circulated that Democratic U.S. Rep. Joseph Sestak — who represents the 7th Congressional District in Delaware, Montgomery and Chester counties — has had his eye on the 2010 U.S. Senate race. Mr. Sestak had repeatedly denied such ambition, telling The Bulletin in late 2008 that it was a "zero chance" on a scale of one to 10.

But things have changed.

On April 28, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter delivered a political earthquake by defecting from the GOP into the waiting arms of the Democrat establishment. Prior to that, only former National Constitution Center CEO Joseph Torsella was a major candidate in the Democratic field.

Most observers feel Mr. Torsella will now pull out of the Democratic primary, clearing the field for Mr. Specter. But based on the congressman’s recent statements, the field may not be so clear after all.

"When I heard about Sen. Specter’s switch, I was moved towards the decision to make the run. I was disappointed in the Washington, D.C. political establishment," said Mr. Sestak, a retired three-star Navy admiral.

"They said, ‘Here, Pennsylvania! We’ve made your decision. This is your guy, and we’re all lining up [behind Specter].’ I think it was against the principles of this country."

Stating the decision should be left to Pennsylvanians, Mr. Sestak said embracing Mr. Specter "just didn’t seem right." He said he had no problem with someone switching parties, but questioned the timing and motivation behind Mr. Specter’s move.

"Why now? Why not years ago? And if he’s still going to be that same independent-minded individual [and not vote on party lines], then why switch from the GOP?" he asked.

"How is he going to use his leadership to shape the Democratic Party? More importantly, how can we rely on him — not just now, during the election, but all the way through 2016? Those are the questions that need to be answered by the Democratic primary voters," Mr. Sestak added.

The congressman said he believes voters in the Democratic primary should not automatically accept Mr. Specter, criticizing the "political expediency" of the senator’s defection due to unfavorable Republican polls.

"Too many Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs, and too many people’s homes are in foreclosure. And yet he’s worried about his job?" Mr. Sestak asked.

While the congressman praised Mr. Specter for many of his accomplishments, he wonders how effective the senator will be in dealing with the most pressing issues affecting Pennsylvanians.

"We have serious challenges confronting us, from energy to education to health care," Mr. Sestak said. "Yet on the Sunday morning talk shows, Sen. Specter didn’t speak about what Pennsylvanians would get [from his switch]. He told us that he didn’t want his legacy tarnished. But this shouldn’t be about the past. It’s about the future."

Mr. Specter’s vote against President Barack Obama’s budget left Mr. Sestak cringing about what type of Democrat Mr. Specter will be.

"That budget is the Democrats’ roadmap for the years to come. It’s about how the president intends to lead this nation, his blueprint [for his programs]," he said. "Sen. Specter’s not the guy. We should be looking for someone else to take the mantle of leadership. It’s about the issues, not about the job."

Despite Mr. Sestak’s inclination to run, the odds of winning a race against a well-funded, never-say-die politician who has consistently defied political oddsmakers is a daunting task. The national and state political establishments have committed to Mr. Specter, and he will have Mr. Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell consistently stumping for him.

Additionally, Democratic leaders, in an effort to stifle a bruising primary battle, will most likely pressure donors to support Mr. Specter, which could bleed Mr. Sestak’s coffers dry.

Most political veterans calculate that a relatively unknown primary challenger must raise at least $7 to $8 million to be competitive. Mr. Specter has $7 million in cash on-hand.

With a $3.5 million warchest at the ready, however, Mr. Sestak is off to a solid start should he decide to engage Mr. Specter in a primary. But the scope of such a challenge is not lost on Mr. Sestak.

Asked how he intends to raise the necessary amount of money, he simply answered, "hard work." He credits his brother and sisters as the driving force behind his fundraising successes, stating he is probably the only member of Congress who doesn’t use a professional fundraising firm.

"A lot of my support has come from nontraditional means, from people who have never before contributed to a political campaign," he said. "We will have to continue that level of hard work to be successful."

As a testament to his work ethic, Mr. Sestak said his office, which is open seven days a week, has handled 10,000 constituent requests over the last two years, compared with the congressional average of 3,200.

Mr. Sestak said he has not heard from the president, governor or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about his prospective candidacy, nor has he been waiting by the phone for their calls.

"I don’t expect a call from them. They made a decision. They have bigger fish to fry … they have the economy and wars to worry about. But I do feel strongly about this," Mr. Sestak said.

"I think all Pennsylvanians should feel strongly about Washington, D.C.’s Democratic establishment saying, ‘Here’s your guy.’ There’s just something uncomfortable about that situation."

The Democratic hierarchy’s decision to back Mr. Specter hasn’t deterred Mr. Sestak, but in fact it has done the opposite.

"This doesn’t seem to be the way politics was meant to be done. And that’s what really has moved me closer to a run," Mr. Sestak said. "I don’t think individuals like myself should hesitate to get in the race."

Mr. Sestak concluded that the Democratic establishment’s political calculus might have initially moved him to run, but deciding who would be the best Democratic senator to work on policies affecting Pennsylvanians is now his primary thought.

"If you think that the Democratic policies of this president are the right way to go, you should be fighting for them. Most Democrats do. But where was Arlen on these votes? The opposite way," Mr. Sestak asked.

"Why not just stay in the GOP? If it’s just about the job — it’s not enough."

Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]