CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – When the White House asked Rep. Joe Sestak to go on TV last summer to defend its planned shutdown of the Guantánamo Bay prison, he was happy to do it. During his appearance, he told me with a big laugh, national Democrats sent out a blast e-mail signed by Vice President Joe Biden. The gist: "Arlen Specter is our guy."
The story nicely captures Sestak's journey from prize Senate recruit to skunk at the garden party. Top Democrats finally succeeded last spring in persuading Sestak, a retired three-star admiral from the Philadelphia suburbs, to take on Specter, a five-term Republican senator. But they failed to persuade Sestak to drop the idea when, a few weeks later, Specter suddenly became a Democrat. So Democrats who once looked forward to a heated Specter-Sestak showdown this fall now have on their hands a potentially divisive nomination race to be settled in the May 18 primary.
It's not hard to see why Democrats initially wanted Sestak to run against Specter. His biography alone would be enough -- one of eight children, son of a Navy captain, a 31-year Navy man himself. He was director for defense policy in the Clinton White House and head of the Navy anti-terrorism unit after the 9/11 attacks. From 2002 to 2003, during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he commanded 30 ships, 100 aircraft, and 15,000 sailors, marines and SEALs in the George Washington Aircraft Carrier Battle Group. In the House, where he's been since early 2007, he keeps his office open seven days a week, handles four times the average number of constituent cases and was named most productive legislator in his freshman class.
Specter dominates the field right now, but that's just fueling Sestak's mission of saving fellow Democrats from choosing a Republican. An intense, wiry man whose thoughts sometimes spill out way too fast to be clear, fate has positioned him in this race as an anti-establishment 58-year-old underdog up against an 80-year-old member of the Senate's old-boys club. As he rails against deals, corruption, polarization and opportunism, Sestak comes across as a candidate with nothing much to lose.
"I'd done everything I wanted to in life by 1986," Sestak told a Rotary Club here last week, specifically joining the Navy and commanding a ship. He said he's had only two major personal challenges -- "getting somebody to marry me" (he accomplished that at age 47) and seeing his 4-year-old daughter stricken with the same type of brain tumor that killed Teddy Kennedy (despite a prognosis of death in three to nine months, she is now 8 and doing well).
The Sestak family had excellent health care and coverage through the military, but met too many parents of sick children who had limited or non-existent insurance. Sestak says he ran for Congress in 2006 with universal health care as his principal goal. "I'm only in politics because of my daughter's brain tumor," he says. Now that President Obama has signed the new health law, "I can retire," he says, and he's only half joking.
On the trail, Sestak says there are "no more Titans" in the Senate. He says there's an "inbred" culture that cares too much about winning and too little about principle. At the Rotary lunch, at a Wilson College town hall and in an interview with me, he names names. There's Ben Nelson, the Nebraska senator whose procurement of permanent extra Medicaid money for his state -- the "Cornhusker kickback" -- helped sour voters on the whole health overhaul drive (the provision was killed in the final health votes last month). Nelson "compromised principles," Sestak tells the Rotarians. "He extorted, almost, the system for his vote." (For the record, Nelson told Politics Daily he had sought extra money for all states
, not just his.)
Then, of course, there's Specter, a moderate who bolted his party a few days after a poll showed conservative former congressman Pat Toomey beating him badly in the GOP primary, and who even cited that "bleak" poll
in explaining his reasons for becoming a Democrat. Sestak says he respects Specter for his courage -- after all, Specter has fought his own battle against cancer -- but that doesn't stop him from calling Specter "a symbol of what's wrong with Washington."
While Specter was a moderate Republican, some of his highest profile votes over the years -- starting with Clarence Thomas and other conservative Supreme Court nominees, the Iraq war and George W. Bush's tax cuts -- were anathema to those on the left. He has moved in their direction on several fronts in the last few months: from opposing to supporting
a public insurance option in the health overhaul, from delaying to endorsing
Indiana University professor Dawn Johnsen's nomination to a key Justice Department post (her work on abortion rights and civil liberties has been controversial), from blocking to supporting
the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for workers to form unions).
The shifts, along with support from the Obama White House, have paid off. The state party has endorsed Specter and so has the state AFL-CIO
. Sestak, who himself has tacked to the left in this race, says Specter is a faux Democrat who voted 85 percent with Bush and has a mere 61 percent lifetime AFL-CIO rating (compared to nearly 100 percent for Sestak). "I'm actually running as if I'm running against a Republican, because I am. He is a Democrat out of convenience," Sestak told me. "He takes his positions to [do] what is necessary to either keep his job or have his best prospects for election."
Sestak, the highest ranking former military officer ever elected to either chamber, hasn't hesitated to take on the president. He posted a video of disillusioned Democrats telling Obama he should support Sestak
instead of Specter. And he shattered a little china by answering "yes" when a radio host asked if the administration had offered him a job to get him out of the race
. That kind of disclosure is so rare that Republicans are pressing for a special prosecutor to investigate the conversation. When I asked Sestak if he regretted the response, he said, "I answered honestly. How can you regret a piece of honesty?"
As a man told Sestak approvingly last week at Wilson College, "You're kind of a pest, aren't you."
That's how Specter has been treating him. He's ignored Sestak's request for six debates, instead agreeing to a single 7 p.m. debate in Philadelphia on May 1. That's a Saturday night -- not exactly prime time for politics. So in the meantime Sestak has been appearing on shows like "Fox and Friends" and debating Toomey. Why does Toomey debate him? Sestak laughs and says it's because Toomey knows he'll probably be running against him this fall.
At the moment that's a long-odds proposition. Sestak trailed Specter by 32 percent to 12 percent in a mid-March poll
by Franklin and Marshall College. Sestak sees the poll as good news because 52 percent were undecided. Chris Nicholas, a Specter spokesman, says a Quinnipiac Poll from early March is more trustworthy. It shows many fewer people undecided
and high approval for Specter among Democrats. "People kind of understand that he used to be a Republican and have processed that information," Nicholas says.
Neither campaign would disclose first-quarter fundraising numbers. Sestak had $5.1 million in the bank as of Jan. 1 -- less than Specter's $8.5 million but more, Sestak says, than any previous challenger has raised against Specter. That includes Toomey, who trailed Specter by double digits and millions of dollars at a comparable point in 2004, and came within 2 percentage points of an upset in the GOP primary.
As of late last week, Sestak said he was still pondering his advertising strategy -- when to start, whether to buy time in expensive Philadelphia, how much to focus on today's "savage recession" versus Specter's 20 years of helping Republican presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush achieve their goals. In exactly six weeks, he will be either a short-timer on Capitol Hill or hastily trying to rebuild relations with the nation's top Democrats as he rushes headlong into a crucial statewide campaign.