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A Tale of Two Colleagues: Meehan Vs. Stollsteimer In 2012? Or Sestak?

 It could be a battle royale between the two former prosecutors, but what about Joe Sestak?

Assistant District Attorney, Delaware County.

Assistant United States Attorney, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, specializing in prosecuting illegal firearms cases and violent drug offenders.

Governor-appointed Safe Schools Advocate for the School District of Philadelphia — a position that was ultimately “eliminated” not for budgetary reasons, but because he publicly chastised the Governor and Department of Education for their willful failure to protect students.

Was often mentioned as a possible nominee for United States Attorney.

And now, this person is considering running for Congress as a strong get-tough-on crime candidate.

Such a resume would seem a great springboard for elected office, as law-and-order candidates have met with great success lately: Governors Tom Corbett and Chris Christie are former prosecutors, as are Pennsylvania Congressmen Tom Marino and Pat Meehan, as well as State Representative Todd Stephens.

But here’s where it gets interesting.  All the aforementioned politicians are Republicans, but this resume belongs to Jack Stollsteimer, a self-styled RFK Democrat who is strongly positioned to win his Party’s nomination in next year’s Seventh Congressional District race.  To claim the ultimate prize in November, he would have to beat not just a Republican, but his former U.S. Attorney boss, Rep. Pat Meehan.

But first things first. Will the path to the nomination be clear, or will a well-known Democrat with a history of success — and unpredictability — decide to throw his hat into the ring? And if so, when? 

*****

The district, which includes most of Delaware County, parts of Chester County and a section of Montgomery, is traditionally perceived as Republican, because voter registration favors the GOP, and the Delaware County courthouse has long been controlled by the well-oiled Republican Machine.

But while Republicans hold a majority of offices throughout the county, their grip on power has been slipping.  No Republican presidential candidate has won Delco since 1988, and numerous Democratic state legislators now represent districts long-held by the GOP. But perhaps most telling, in 2010 — the largest Republican wave since 1946 — both Governor Tom Cornett and U.S. Senator Pat Toomey lost the county.

Yet Pat Meehan won by ten points.

Meehan’s impressive showing was bolstered by the Republican tidal wave and the fact that it was an open seat, since former Congressman Joe Sestak ran for U.S. Senate.  That substantial victory has provided him a solid foundation to launch his re-election bid. 

But to stay in office, he will have to wage an aggressive campaign, taking nothing for granted. Unlike last year, he now owns a voting record. And when it comes to Congress, Seventh District voters have an independent streak that defies conventional political wisdom. 

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Seventh was represented by Bob Edgar, arguably to the Left of Mao and universally recognized as the most liberal member of Congress.  After giving up the seat to (unsuccessfully) run for U.S. Senate, Edgar was replaced by the generally-conservative Republican Curt Weldon. But in the Democratic wave of 2006, he lost to Sestak, a former Navy Admiral who, like Edgar, was unabashedly liberal.

Understanding the volatile electorate, the District’s wild fluctuations of the past, and sensing that the seat is not as safe as last year’s election results would indicate, the national Republican Campaign Congressional Committee has “enrolled” Meehan in its Patriot Program.  An effort designed to assist mostly freshmen, the program targets the top ten GOP legislators whose perceived vulnerabilities will likely lead to tough reelection fights. 

*****

Stollsteimer has been actively courted not just by local leaders but the national Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee. To take on Meehan, though, he must first secure the Democratic Party’s nomination.  To that end, his plan is to aggressively work the committee to earn its endorsement, hopefully avoiding an expensive, and potentially bruising, primary fight. He has already made inroads, having secured the backing of several highly influential Democrats within the Party hierarchy.

“Jack would be a great candidate if he decides to run, with a strong profile and reputation for independence and integrity, that has attracted the attention of the national Democratic Party,” a Party leader in the district told “Freindly Fire.”

That official requested anonymity, though, as the path has not yet been smoothly paved for Stollsteimer — or any other potential candidate.  And that’s because there is an 800 pound gorilla hovering in the wings who could change the dynamics of the race at a moment’s notice — for both the primary and general elections.

And in typical fashion, that individual is playing it coy, not announcing his intentions whether to seek the Congressional seat — which he happened to hold just seven months ago.

Joe Sestak is the ultimate wild card, an independent Democrat who has often clashed with Party powerbrokers and a person to whom the terms “conventional wisdom” and “predictability” simply do not apply.

He gave up what virtually every political analyst stated was a near-100 percent safe seat, to run as David against Goliath — 30-year incumbent powerhouse Arlen Specter, whose war chest dwarfed that of Sestak. The political insiders not only didn’t give Sestak much of a chance — he was trailing by more than 20 points just a few months out from the primary — but did everything in their power to stop him. 

They attempted to talk him out of running, not just to keep the Congressional seat safe but to avoid a primary challenge to Specter.  When that didn’t work, there was the “Job Gate” offer, in which Sestak said the White House dangled a high-ranking position in exchange for his dropping out of the senate race. But that didn’t work, either.

Then the D’s took the gloves off, with prominent leaders, including then-Governor Rendell and the state Democratic Party chairman, openly attacking Sestak on numerous fronts.  They said he could not win a general election, and predicted a Sestak primary victory would be “cataclysmic” in the fall election.

And yet, despite the GOP wave, Sestak lost to Toomey by a mere two points.

Would Sestak present a viable candidacy to Meehan?  Absolutely.  The 2012 elections will be more favorable to Democrats, not just because a presidential year always brings out more voters, and political waves are never sustainable when they crest at such a high level, but because the “Republicans-are-destroying-our-Medicare” issue will undoubtedly gain traction.  Democrats are already pointing to their win in the recent New York special election as evidence, given that the seat was widely expected to remain in GOP hands.

But for the Democrats to be successful in the Seventh next year, they need to unify soon or risk losing good candidates.  Very few will be willing to put blood, sweat and tears into a campaign — and they would have to open a committee very soon — while the specter of a Sestak candidacy still looms.  And if Sestak declines to run, but announces that decision late in the game, precious time will have been wasted.

Sestak would most likely be able to establish a grassroots operation and generate significant fundraising relatively quickly, due to the national network gained from his senate run, but the same is not the case for other candidates. They would have to lay the groundwork, and that takes time and resources.  And many potential donors and campaign workers will stay on the sidelines, reluctant to commit to someone like Stollsteimer — no matter how attractive a candidate he may be — until Sestak makes up his mind. 

In an age where campaigns routinely begin over a year out from the election, any significant delay could prove a boon for the Meehan camp. Translation: the longer Joe Sestak remains noncommittal, the less likely the Democrats’ chances for success next November.

Will Sestak get back into the political fray?  If so, would it be for Congress, a position some think is not prominent enough for someone used to commanding a carrier-battle group — especially when he would likely return to Washington in the minority? And why would Sestak still be touring Pennsylvania, meeting new Democrats statewide, if he intends to run in the relatively small Seventh District? 

It is never easy when it comes to predicting anything regarding Joe Sestak, and experience has shown that most “experts” are wrong anyway.

So the biggest question is the simplest one: at this point, does even Joe Sestak himself have any idea what he is going to do?  Whatever the answer, it’s in the best interest of his Party to make up his mind quickly.

 Let the games begin.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”

 Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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June 3, 2011 at 7:09 am
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