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Democrats' intraparty fight over who should challenge Toomey haunts second US Senate campaign

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — This month marks six years since Arlen Specter switched parties to become a Democrat, upending Pennsylvania's 2010 U.S. Senate campaign and setting off an intraparty fight among Democrats that is now haunting a second campaign.

Party leaders are now searching the ranks for someone who can beat the Republican incumbent, Pat Toomey, and, perhaps as importantly to them, one of their own.

The Democrat who is already running is Joe Sestak, the former U.S. representative from Delaware County and an ex-Navy vice admiral. In 2010, he bucked the wishes of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other party leaders to run against Specter in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

He beat Specter — while emphasizing that he stood up to party leaders — before he lost narrowly to Toomey. That and other friction between Sestak and top Democrats — he is uncooperative with the party, they complain — have not been forgotten now that he is running again to take on Toomey next year.

"You win some, you lose some, you move on," said T.J. Rooney, who was chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party when Specter switched parties. "But what he continues to do is use that as his rallying cry, 'I'm bucking the establishment.' ... Well, guess what, the establishment is going to buck him back."

The 2016 Senate election in Pennsylvania promises to be expensive and closely watched. The 2010 race cost more than $50 million, including spending by outside groups, and many expect that spending on the 2016 race will pass that mark.

With majority Republicans defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats in 2016, control of the Senate is at stake.

Democrats have a right to be optimistic in Pennsylvania.

Toomey won in 2010, a midterm election when a strong Republican wave swept dozens of Democrats out of Congress. Next year, however, is a presidential election year, when Democrats expect more of their voters to emerge.

Still, Toomey is a formidable candidate, a squeaky-clean former businessman and investment banker who is popular with free-market and anti-tax groups that have a lot of money to spend to influence elections.

The primary election is still a year away — April 26, 2016 — and Pennsylvania's best-known Democrats have shown no interest in running. Behind the scenes, national party leaders are pressuring Josh Shapiro, who runs Pennsylvania's third most populous county.

Shapiro, the chairman of the three-member Montgomery County board of commissioners, has declined to comment. But Philadelphia's Democratic Party chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, said Shapiro is considering running.

"He's interested in it," Brady said. "It's up to him to make a decision."

Sestak announced his candidacy March 4 and promptly set off on a 422-mile, 25-day walk across Pennsylvania. Sestak seems unfazed by headwinds from inside the Democratic Party. He is, he said in an interview, an independent "who happens to be a Democrat" and is more interested in the trust of people than party elders.

Meanwhile, Sestak's aggressive retail campaigning is forcing any Democrat considering a run to move up their timetable to start raising money and organizing a campaign, Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn said.

For all the disenchantment with Sestak — "He's more of a maverick than anything else," Brady said — he appears to enjoy considerable support from rank-and-file Democrats. Sestak, 63, has been a regular on the local party event circuit around Pennsylvania, attending hundreds of fundraisers, county dinners and other gatherings in recent years.

"He's built up a lot of good will," said Centre County's Democratic Party chairman, Greg Stewart. "People like him. We had 100, 200 people in the crowd for our fall dinner, and he was well-received."

He's also built up nearly $1.6 million in campaign cash, according to Dec. 31 reports on hand at the Federal Election Commission. That's small in comparison to Toomey's $5.8 million, but it's more than anyone starting from scratch.

None of that will scare a Democrat from challenging Sestak, Brady said.

"Joe Sestak isn't scaring anybody, that's for sure," Brady said. "Nobody's not thinking about running because they're afraid of running against him in the primary."


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter .

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