WEST CHESTER, Pa. – Delaware Republican Christine O'Donnell isn't running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, but you might get the idea that she is. She's on the local news around here, she's in radio and TV ads, and she's part of Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak's stump speech in his Senate campaign against Republican Pat Toomey. Or, as he describes it, his race against the "O'Donnell-Toomey-Palin" ticket.
A 31-year Navy veteran, Sestak was on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House and commanded an aircraft battle carrier group after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He wears a Navy jacket to campaign events and his supporters wear "Admiral" T-shirts. His campaign materials refer to him as "Admiral Sestak" and it's clear from his words and metaphors -- torpedoes, sinking ships – that the military is his frame of reference.
But Sestak has learned a lot about politics in his four-year House career – enough for an unexpected, come-from-behind victory over Sen. Arlen Specter in last May's Democratic Senate primary, and for another late surge that's given him at least an outside chance to beat Toomey in a GOP year.
That's brought the Democratic brass flocking to his aid, including Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama just this week, as the party tries to preserve its Senate majority.
As part of his push for a second upset, Sestak pounced on controversial Tea Party candidate O'Donnell's surprise primary victory last month and now lumps Toomey with her whenever he can. "She's right next door," Sestak explained in an interview, as if to say, how could I resist?
O'Donnell is trailing Democrat Chris Coons by double digits in her own Senate race even as she has become a staple on cable and late-night TV, and the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" parody. With Wilmington in the Philadelphia media market, voters here in densely populated southeastern Pennsylvania get an even heavier dose of O'Donnell.
The Coons campaign, for instance, has run a Twilight Zone takeoff ad called "The O'Donnell Zone
." "Christine O'Donnell says a lot of strange things," a narrator says. We then see and hear O'Donnell saying that "I am not a witch," and "Evolution is a myth," and cross-breeding has produced "mice with fully functioning human brains." As the narrator says, "Huh?"
The O'Donnell connection is not one embraced by Toomey, a former Wall Street trader, business owner, congressman and president of the anti-tax, Washington-based Club for Growth. He told Fox News Sunday that Sestak is "trying to run against somebody that I've never met, that I don't agree with."
It's true that Toomey is not into witchcraft or precocious mice
, nor has he discussed whether the founders really meant to separate church and state
. Still, Toomey himself says he's been on the same economic page as the tea party "for a very long time." The ideas he promotes in a 2009 book
and on the campaign trail -- lower corporate taxes, less corporate regulation, government spending cutbacks, private Social Security accounts invested in the stock market -- are in line with leading tea party lights such as Palin and O'Donnell.
"While he's not a witch, his book is very scary," Sestak often says. The line always gets laughs.
A driven man who rides herd on his staff, Sestak, 58, maintains his real career is over. Politics, he says, is "a passion," something he took up after his young daughter was diagnosed five years ago with brain cancer. She is 9 now and in remission, but the contrast between his Navy coverage and the insurance woes of families he met at the hospital stayed with him. "This is my debt to you, to pay back. My daughter was saved by you and you know it, by the health care plan that I had" through the military, Sestak said at a West Chester rally the other day.
The workaholic Sestak appears to thrive on the frenetic intensity of the endgame. "Enthusiasm gap? Get over it! There isn't any!" he shouted the other day, laughing, as he rallied volunteers to turn out voters.
He even offers kind words these days to the loud Toomey protestors who have been a fixture at his outdoor events. In Media last weekend, their shouts interrupted him as he spoke to a hometown crowd about his daughter's illness. But he smiled. "I don't mind the clamor here," he said, harking back to his family life as one of eight siblings and a nearby parochial school "where they kicked me out, I think."
That wouldn't be a shock. This is not a guy who goes along to get along, as he showed with his primary challenge to Specter
, pursued against the wishes of establishment Democrats from Obama on down. Fans at his rallies repeatedly describe him as a hard-driving straight-shooter -- traits that got him an assignment studying how to revamp the Navy for the future, and then got him relieved of the assignment after he proposed a downsizing. His former boss, Admiral Vernon Clark, said his protege was in the crosshairs but had the toughness to speak up.
Sestak's main talking points against Toomey are that he is too close to Wall Street and corporations, too cavalier about risking Social Security savings in the stock market, and too soft on sending U.S. jobs to China. He often quotes a line in Toomey's book that buy-American requirements are "an unfortunate tendency
." He also hammers, on the stump and in ads
, Toomey's view that corporations ideally should pay no taxes. Toomey says he supports lowering the business tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. The zero rate, he says, was never a serious proposal.
Even as Toomey labels Sestak "Bailout Joe" for supporting bank bailouts and the stimulus bill, Sestak blames Toomey for supporting -- in Congress and at the Club for Growth -- the policies that made those votes necessary. "We had to stop the ship from sinking that Congressman Toomey had torpedoed. I had to caulk the holes," Sestak told me. He makes the same point in a funny ad that shows him, poop bag in hand, cleaning up after his dog, Belle
Speaking of cleaning up, Sestak has won the lion's share of newspaper endorsements in the state. Most characterize him as liberal and cite his expertise in military matters. Some mention his two Harvard graduate degrees -- a master's of public administration and a Ph.D. in political economy and government. Several note that Toomey has a very conservative voting record and played a key role in purging moderates like Specter from the GOP.
The two candidates' closing ads are as different as their politics. Toomey, in a sentimental spot about his new baby son
that's clearly aimed at taking the edge off his conservatism, criticizes "the Washington politicians" for making a bad situation worse. "I know we can do better, and I have a pretty good reason for wanting to," he says.
Sestak, trying to appeal to independents and moderates, stresses his contrarian streak
. "I served in the Navy for 31 years, but opposed the war in Iraq. I worked for President Clinton, but stood up to the establishment in my own party to take on Arlen Specter," he says. He promises to "stand up to party bosses, to Wall Street, to Washington."
Perhaps those party bosses would be relieved to know Sestak is also promising voters that he will serve only two terms. "I figure I've got 12 good years left," he tells them. For now, Democrats are united in hoping that the retired admiral -- propelled by O'Donnell's proximity, Toomey's ideology, Tea Party backlash and Belle the dog -- can pull off another upset.
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