Two House Democrats, Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Carolyn Maloney of New York, are poised to defy the unambiguous wishes of Obama and challenge incumbent senators of their own party.
Both indicated to POLITICO that they were likely to run — and would do so regardless of what Obama said.
Sestak, a second-term Philadelphia-area congressman and retired admiral, said he was just over a month away from announcing his intention to challenge Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter.
“I understand the very short-term, expedient desire to have the insurance of a 60th vote,” Sestak said, speaking of the implications of Specter’s April party switch and why the longtime senator was so quickly embraced by the administration.
But he added of Obama: “I believe in his heart of hearts, he really wants a real Democrat to win this race, and I think he very much respects that we are pretty independent-minded in Pennsylvania and we should have a choice.”
Asked directly if a plea from Obama would make any difference, Sestak shook his head and said: “No.”
Maloney, a veteran member of Congress who represents much of New York City’s silk-stocking Upper East Side, dispatched longtime Democratic consultant and her likely chief campaign strategist Joe Trippi to state her intentions about a potential challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
“She’s way past all that,” Trippi said when asked about how Maloney would respond to a request from Obama to stay out of the race. “She really believes the people of New York deserve a choice. She’s not somebody who’s going to back down.”
The two races illustrate the risks for Obama, or any president, in trying to play local kingmaker — namely, the very real possibility that no matter how popular he is, he may not be able bend every contest to his wishes and that by trying to do so, he risks being defied by his own party.
For Obama, there’s an added irony that isn’t lost on some Democrats — that the ultimate insurgent candidate is now in the incumbent-protection business.
In the case of Sestak and Maloney, Obama may be reaping what he sowed. While Hillary Clinton wasn’t an incumbent in the presidential race, she was the establishment figure who many Democratic elites rallied around early on in the primary. But the president proved that an insurgent can win and that Democratic primary voters can buck their elected leaders.
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“Who do they think inspired these people to run?” asked Trippi. “They started this. They took on the established order of the party. If they had listened to the establishment, Obama wouldn’t be in the White House. It’s hard for them to argue with this when they blazed the trail.”
Also recently, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a popular Democrat with rural roots, demurred when Obama urged him to take on first-term Republican Sen. Richard Burr, according to sources familiar with the recruitment. Cooper was a top recruit of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but Cooper decided he just didn’t want to serve in Washington, the sources said.
But in the Gillibrand race, Obama had better luck waving off Rep. Steve Israel’s threatened primary challenge to Gillibrand.
“He talked about the importance of party unity and said he was interested in my continued House leadership on energy issues,” recalled Israel, who wanted it known that Obama’s “appeal persuaded me to forgo my own immediate political desires at this time.” (One senior emocrat noted that the White House wouldn’t have put Obama on the phone with Israel without knowing the congressman would bow to his wishes.)
But the president has yet to contact Sestak, and a conversation Vice President Joe Biden recently had with Maloney appears to have had little impact.
Trippi said Maloney, who has already commissioned a poll and begun to sign up staff, would most likely enter the race “in a matter of days, not weeks,” though other New York Democrats suggested she was not that close.
Maloney is actively seeking support from fellow Democrats in New York’s House delegation — a group that does not have much regard for their ambitious former colleague — ahead of a primary she’ll likely launch from Gillibrand’s left flank.
The White House is mostly mum about the primary threats from the two House Democrats. But Menendez, who is in frequent contact with senior Obama officials about the 2010 campaigns, suggested that the duo may ultimately not run.
“We’ll see whether or not they get in at the end of the day,” said Menendez, adding that there was a difference between making noises about a primary challenge and the moment “when it comes time to go file and get into a race.”
Sestak said he had traded phone calls with Menendez but had not yet had the opportunity to deliver his prepared response to Obama.“‘I remember very much what you said at Arizona State University [in a commencement address last month]: that the core mission of the office of the president is to ensure that there are opportunities for everyone. And I know, Mr. President, that you wouldn’t want, therefore, to foreclose the opportunity for Pennsylvanians to have a choice.”
Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney said Sestak most likely wouldn’t have to fine-tune his spiel because the White House knows a call wouldn’t sway the independent-minded congressman. “I assume the president would take the congressman at his word,” said Rooney.
Still, some prominent Washington Democrats think an intraparty challenge against Specter — or even the threat of one — isn’t a bad thing.
Organized labor, for example, is closely watching Specter to see where he ultimately comes down on the Employee Free Choice Act, the union organizing bill that is its central priority. As long as Sestak is looming or even running, the more likely it is Specter will take a position on the legislation that is ultimately agreeable to labor, this thinking goes.
“It makes Specter a better Democrat,” political analyst Charlie Cook said.
In New York, Obama’s intervention is chalked up with a one-word explanation: Chuck.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the former head of the DSCC and a key player in the health care debate, has taken Gillibrand under his wing, and he pleaded directly to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other senior Obama officials to help forestall a Senate primary a week before the president called Israel.
A longtime New York Democrat said the Obama White House was weighing in so as only to please a crucial ally.
“Now they can say, ‘A-ha, see Chuck? We tried,’” observed this Democrat.
But Obama’s move, while offering Israel cover, has rankled some veteran Empire State Democrats.
“You know, I was really surprised that [the president] got involved in the state race. Once you open the door to start making these decisions within the party — I could give him a list of states that I have preferences on and ask him to get involved in. I think it’s bad public policy for a president to do that,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel said last week in an interview on the news station NY1.
Another senior New York House Democrat complained to POLITICO that Obama was opening “a Pandora&rsquos box” by weighing in on the race.
“I think that once you open it, it’s hard to shut the lid,” the Democrat said. “Once you start engaging at that level, where do you stop?”