This weekend, I was on PCNC's Nighttalk: Get to the Point, and fellow guest Monica Douglas made an assertion that might have surprised people ... assuming any were watching. (We were airing on a Friday night, after all, up against a Haiti benefit featuring folks like Justin Timberlake and Madonna.)
Douglas is the executive director for the Republican Party in Allegheny County, and host P.J. Maloney asked her who would be the stronger Democrat in this fall's U.S. Senate race: incumbent Arlen Specter or upstart Joe Sestak.
Douglas didn't pause: Sestak, she said.
Surprising? Maybe a bit, since polls -- including one last month -- show Specter holding off a challenge from likely GOP nominee Pat Toomey, while Sestak lags the field. The conventional wisdom is that Specter is a known quantity, and has the backing of party elders like Ed Rendell.
But on the other hand ... Specter is a known quantity, and has the backing of party elders like Ed Rendell.
Sestak, a former three-star admiral who now holds a seat in the US House from out in the eastern part of the state, has made repeated visits to Pittsburgh in recent days. This Sunday, he appeared in the cramped basement of Beechview's Moose Lodge. He was there largely to talk about shoring up the country's retirement system, but he mixed in some digs at his own party elders.
"Tell me the one great issue Arlen Specter is noted for," Sestak asked the crowd. "Name just one."
There was a pause, and then some laughter.
"Survival," one audience members said.
Not for long, Sestak argued later: "We will lose if Arlen Specter is the nominee. We saw that in Massachusetts."
That, of course, was a reference to last week's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy. Sestak's take is that the outcome shows that voters are weary of the political establishment in Washington -- Democrats included.
For what it's worth, I think that's true. I know plenty of folks who think Specter will win the Democratic nomination this spring. But I don't know anyone who is really happy about it. And the enthusiasm gap killed Democrats in Massachusetts, especially with key groups like young voters.
No surprise, then, that Sestak is running as an insurgent against his own party -- actively boasting about how Democratic leaders wish he wouldn't run.
When one audience member said he was "really tired of Republicans pushing Democrats around," Sestak promised he wasn't going to be pushed around even by Democrats. "I'm running against a Democratic establishment [that] mandated that I sit down."
Sestak also talked policy to the crowd of two dozen, who mostly seemed well disposed to him (and well schooled on the issues). To increase national savings rates, he proposed a tax credit of up to 60 percent on the first $2,000 of savings put away by working-class households. He also supported requirements for all but the smallest employers to offer IRA plans to employees -- and for employees to be automatically enrolled in those programs unless they opt out. (That sounds like a small distinction, but behaviorial economists tell us that compelling people to opt out rather than opt in dramatically increases participation in IRAs.) Sestak also waxed populist, calling for more transparency and an end to "usurious fees" by money mangers.
Sestak predicted that in the short run, Congress would pass a measure dealing with several of the easier issues on health-care -- like ending recissions and denial of care because of pre-existing conditions. That will be followed by "a small hiatus," and then another run at reform, he surmised.
This was also my first time watching Sestak interact with voters directly. He's a little wonky at times -- no one should ever use the word "incentivize" -- but otherwise not bad at all. At one point he asked his listeners, "You all remember Harry Truman? You're too young -- but you read about him." I'm guessing at least a quarter of the audience could have voted for Truman.
But to me, the most interesting thing about Sestak is how he uses his military background as a basis for an unapologetically liberal stance. Sestak brought up his position on LGBT issues -- which includes supporting an end to "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"-- by flatly declaring, "I went to war with a certain percentage [of] servicepeople who were gay."
As for his position on healthcare reform? Sestak doesn't back single-payer -- he prefers aggressive market reforms -- but scoffs at GOP fearmongering about it: "Everybody in the military has healthcare. Are we socialistic?"
In fact, Sestak says, "Everybody in the military is a Democrat; they just don't realize it."
So I gotta think that Sestak could hold his own against Toomey, Specter, or anyone else. He's already had lots of practice: Sestak noted that regularly mixes it up on FOX News and other such forums.
But that, of course, only raises the real problem he faces this year: Republicans like Monica Douglas know how dangerous Sestak can be. Democrats, though, don't watch FOX.