Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

Joe Sestak Aims for Second Upset in Tight Pennsylvania Senate Race

4 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size
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.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Facebook and Twitter.
Filed Under: 2010 Elections, Campaigns

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.

15 Comments

Filter by:
rlbharman

Sestak is too liberal to be in the Senate. He is clueless when it comes to the middle-class. He thinks we should follow his orders and shut up. Whenever he asked a question he doesn't like he gets mad. He sponseed a bill that would give spend thrift people money to cover the cost or the underwater part of their mortgage. Guess who was going to pay. All of us who own our houses. Sestak is really a mess a vote for him is the worst thing that could happen in the country.

October 28 2010 at 8:32 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to rlbharman's comment
andrc657

Joe Sestak would be an excellent senator for Pennsylvania.

October 28 2010 at 3:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jan

I am like soooo confused. Didn't former pres clinton call Sestak up and essentially tell him not to run (Spector's old seat)? Now clinton is stumping for Sestak? Sestak did say the WH offered him a job..., then said a non-paying job..., then said Clinton called him...,

October 28 2010 at 3:42 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
priorityvb

Have you looked at the polls lately, he's down seven points?

October 28 2010 at 12:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to priorityvb's comment
christierandall

Toomey is down now

October 28 2010 at 8:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ezek37

PA is critical....republicans need to win there and stop the madness in DC.

October 28 2010 at 12:07 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
Ed

There are two things about Toomey's campaign that make me think he's an even worse prospect than I thought that he was before. His constant use of anonymous "It has been said about" in his adds regarding both him and Sestak and his repeated use of his kids agreeing with his policy on air. I don't want a Senator who consults his six year old on public policy.

October 28 2010 at 11:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wdsoulplane

First they took our Paychecks, Then Our Homes, What Next? http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/11/galbraith-social-security-middle-class Americans wake up to what is going on. No more carrying the tax burden, while GOP let wealthy and corporations get away with Paying No taxes or very little. That is why we have such a high tax burden. No more saying Nay to not investing in America, which creates Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, while our jobs go to China and India. Realize that less Government, means No Regulations and no one to get in the way of their fraudulent schemes! Say no the Party of No on November 2nd! Vote SESTAK! And, if you do not vote, and you lose Social Security benefits because of privatization or if Unemployment Benefits are put on Freeze, or more jobs shipped overseas, and all you get in Congress is Gridlock and Fillibusters, so that nothing can get accomplished, then there is no one to blame but yourself!

October 28 2010 at 8:19 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
Kenneth

For a man that campaigns and states he is an independent thinker is nothing but a laugh. He voted in lock step with Pelosi on every piece of crap legislation they shoved through congress. Like the heathcare bill that has the hidden federal real estate tax that goes into effect 2013 3.8%. When he campaigns he sould have one on those masks with 2 faces. The one he uses while campaigning and the one he uses when in Washington.

October 28 2010 at 7:49 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

Sestak is a tax and spend Democrat. He will vote down the line with the Obama agaenda. If that is what you want vote for him. Toomey is a concervative who thinks government is to big, taxes and spend to much. If you agree with him vote for him. This is a simple choice on the issues.

October 28 2010 at 7:45 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Eileen

Sorry, Sestak doesn't stand a chance. People in PA are sick of this Congress and want change and real change, not the stuff we were told about 2 years ago. Change that benefits us. Not Healthcare Reform shoved down our throats or Cap and Trade controlling our energy sources. This is still a coal state and that is why West Virginia is looking Republican as well. We are tired of no jobs and want them back and don't want Big Government to take away all that is good to us. This Congress and New Administration is strangling our country and we must change it to keep it right. No more spending!

October 28 2010 at 6:38 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

FEATURED VIDEO

View All »

Discover inspiring videos on TEDWomen where people are reshaping our future with ideas.

View the Video »

Follow Politics Daily


Politics Home Page : Roll Call