Why not Joe Sestak?

    Up-close photo of Joe Sestak smiling.

    File photo: Former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania smiles during a news conference in Philadelphia in 2017. Sestak is among those supporting a new third political party started by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Pennsylvania will be a critical battleground for control of the U.S. Senate next year. The one Democrat running so far is a former admiral who won and held a Republican-leaning congressional seat, and nearly beat current Republican Sen. Pat Toomey last time.

    So why have the state’s Democratic leaders been trying for a year to get somebody else to run? Why can’t Joe Sestak get any love within his own party?

    Original sin

    You can start with 2010, when, you’ll recall, then-Republican Pennsylvania U.S. Sen.  Arlen Specter switched parties, with the encouragement and support of Democrats up and down the line, including President Barack Obama.

    The one Democrat who wasn’t on board with this plan to keep the seat in Democratic hands was Sestak.

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    He entered the race, beat Specter in the primary, and then lost to Toomey in the general, giving Republicans the Senate seat and the Delaware County congressional seat he abandoned.

    One who remembers the episode is Philadelphia Democratic chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

    “The problem I have is that he says to me look, ‘I’m thinking about doing this Senate thing, but I will certainly talk to you about it — I’ll let you know, I’ll let you know,'” Brady told me. “Two days later, he’s out there announcing that he’s running — not that I really care, but don’t tell me you’re going to do something and not do it.”

    There’s more

    Brady also noted that Sestak supported a Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Tim Holden in 2012. “And he supported a write-in candidate against (U.S. Rep.) Allyson Schwartz,” he said.

    I’d forgotten about that one.

    Nate Kleinman was a candidate of the Occupy movement who challenged Schwartz in the 2012 Democratic primary. In part because Kleinman had worked on his Senate campaign, Sestak endorsed the challenger.

    In fact there’s a You Tube video of Sestak standing in someone’s home endorsing Kleinman, speaking at times over a barking dog. At the time, Kleinman wasn’t even on the ballot. He was indeed running a write-in campaign.

    Democratic leaders were angry, but Franklin & Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna said it’s clear Joe Sestak just doesn’t care.

    “He’s a maverick. He’s been distant and aloof from party leaders. He hasn’t made connections, he hasn’t built a relationship,” Madonna said. “There’s no doubt that that estrangement has made party leaders look for other candidates.”

    Party honchos wanted Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, a rising star, to jump into the Senate campaign. He declined.

    Now they’re working on Katie McGinty, who ran for governor last year and is currently Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff. She attended a meeting last weekend of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to talk about the race. Sestak was invited, but didn’t show.

    Looks like Joe anyway

    What does Sestak say about all this? Not much. He declined an interview for this story, and when asked after his March campaign announcement about relationships with party leaders, he pretty much dismissed the question.

    “It’s not about party, it’s not about type,” Sestak said. “It’s about the people, and that’s what’s most important.”

    In an email, campaign spokesman Jake Sternberger reminded me that Sestak hasn’t been ignoring all Democrats.

    “From 2011 to 2014, Joe did an average of 200 events a year for candidates from school board and prothonotary races to state representatives and county commissioners, listening to people throughout the commonwealth,” Sternberger wrote.

    Some party leaders say privately that, while he’s not their favorite guy, Sestak’s independent streak does appeal to voters, and he is a tireless campaigner. It’s not clear they could beat Sestak in a primary even if they were to recruit McGinty or another candidate.

    It’s looking more and more like they’ll have to bury old grudges and learn to love the maverick.

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