Party spurns Senate candidate who almost won Pa. in 2010

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Democrat Joe Sestak came tantalizingly close to winning a seat in the U.S. Senate six years ago and is hoping Tuesday to secure a rematch, but the party establishment wants nothing to do with him, pouring millions into the campaign of his chief rival.

The former two-term congressman and retired Navy rear admiral is wearing his outsider status as a badge of honor as he seeks the nomination to take on Republican Sen. Pat Toomey this fall in a race that could tilt control of the Senate.

He has said that he is fighting “for the soul of the Democratic Party,” and that political party leaders “aren’t in it for people any longer, they’re in it for power and themselves.”

“I’m not a politician,” he said when the candidates were asked at a Friday debate if they would represent a break with the status quo. “Four-and-a-half million dollars — half of it by my own Democratic Party — has been put in against me,” he said.

Party-endorsed candidate Katie McGinty focused instead on the Republican incumbent. “I’ll do something very different from what Pat Toomey has done. Pat Toomey has sold out the middle class,” she said.

McGinty, a former state and federal environmental policy official, has trumpeted the broad range of support she has received, from President Barack Obama to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid to former Gov. Ed Rendell. At the same time she has sought to tap anti-establishment sentiment by looking to the general election.

Sestak’s frosty relationship with party leaders dates to 2009 when he was recruited to challenge then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, then was asked to step aside when Specter switched parties to the delight of Democratic Party leaders. But Sestak refused to drop out — even after former President Bill Clinton was recruited to dangle a government job offer in front of him.

Sestak went on to beat Specter in the primary and lose to Toomey by only 2 percentage points in the 2010 general election, upsetting the Democrats’ plans for regaining the seat in a state where they outnumber Republicans 4-to-3.

Sestak again doesn’t figure into the Democrats’ plan.

The resulting tension has shaped a race in which McGinty’s side has outspent Sestak’s two-to-one. She has been aided by nearly $2 million from a national party committee and $1.75 million from Washington-based Emily’s List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights.

Despite the fundraising disadvantage, the 64-year-old Sestak has led nearly every independent poll. But a large bloc of undecided voters — nearly one in three, according to a new Franklin and Marshall College poll — is adding uncertainty to Tuesday’s election.

Sestak spent the last six years as a regular on the local party event circuit around Pennsylvania, earning loyalty from rank-and-file activists. He also walked across the state last year to kick off his campaign.

The party’s search for an alternative candidate ended last summer when it tapped McGinty, 52, a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration who had also worked for Al Gore, Bill Clinton and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

She has run a radio ad voiced by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made a campaign stop for her in Pittsburgh. McGinty said in one TV ad that Obama endorsed her “because he knows I’m a fighter.”

She has drummed out that theme in her ads, presenting herself as a champion for the middle class and women’s causes, the 9th of 10 children of a Philadelphia cop and a diner waitress. In recent days, her campaign and Emily’s List have also aired attack ads against Sestak.

Sestak has leaned on his military service and touted endorsements by two of the state’s largest newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has also told the story of his young daughter’s successful fight with brain cancer as his motivation for running for Congress in 2006 and backing Obama’s signature 2010 health care law.

One wild card is how a third candidate, John Fetterman, will affect the race, even though he trails badly in the polls and fundraising.

He’s best-known in western Pennsylvania, where he is the 46-year-old mayor of the impoverished steel town of Braddock, about 10 miles outside Pittsburgh. He is 6-foot-8, scowling, bald and tattooed, and his liberal and unconventional campaign — he has dropped in on bars, rock music venues and hookah lounges — has won over some younger voters.

A semiretired owner of a spring manufacturing shop, Joe Vodvarka, was also added back on the ballot in recent days after a dispute in court over whether he had submitted enough signatures. His family has run his low-profile campaign.


Associated Press writer Errin Haines Whack in Philadelphia contributed to this report.


Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy.