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Don’t Count Out Smokin’ Joe Sestak

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As the initial glee/schadenfreude/controversy/whatever over Arlen Specter’s fade to blue wears off, and Specter himself seems to have finally reversed course and learned to keep his mouth shut rather than the apparently explicit strategy of running on a platform of “Hey, let’s be clear…this wasn’t about principle, it was about opportunism”, the dust is settling somewhat and people are beginning to take a look at whether Specter’s path is indeed set.

With Tom Ridge bowing out, it seems that Specter won’t have much to worry about on his right. And, on paper, Specter’s most likely primary challenger from within the Democratic party, Congressman and former Navy Admiral Joe Sestak, seems to be a longshot. Dailykos and Research 2000 did a baseline poll of the race, and found that Specter beats Sestak in a head-to-head 56-11, although even the poll authors note how soft those numbers may in fact be, a function of name ID as much as anything at this point, and also can’t help themselves in noting too that Sestak starts at roughly the same place that Ned Lamont did against Joe Lieberman. As I said, those caveats aside, on paper Sestak looks like a longshot.

But, of course, elections aren’t decided on paper.

There were two good posts the last few days taking different views of this question that I want to call your attention to. The first, is an anonymous reader email to Talking Points Memo from one of Sestak’s constituents. The author concedes that Sestak might have a chance, in a vacuum, but notes that this race won’t occur in a vacuum—the Powers that Be in the Democratic party have a vested interest in either turning Sestak away from this race or cutting off his legs if he enters.

[H]ow is going Sestak going to beat Specter in the Democratic primary? Let me give you four names: Obama, Biden, Rendell, Casey. They’ve all put themselves on the line for Specter. There’s no way they’re going to let Specter lose. They’ll shut off the money for Sestak, and Joe can’t count on the Clinton connection for fundraising help this time. Plus Specter is very well known statewide, and Sestak isn’t.

Finally, think about about this from the national party’s point of view. They would love to get Snowe and/or Collins to switch over. A big Democratic win in 2010 makes that more likely. But not if they see Specter going down to defeat in a Democratic primary.

The whole post is worth reading.

As a counterpoint, last March a 24-year Navy veteran at TheCrossedPond.com wrote a story, apropos of nothing, of an admiral he served with nicknamed “Smokin’ Joe”. I’ll quote the bulk of it.

In the late 1990’s, I was in a squadron of destroyers and frigates lead by Commodore Smokin’ Joe.

Smokin Joe was a bit of an anomaly: unfailingly polite, relentlessly calm, unflappable. I can recall no instance in which he raised his voice or cursed any sailor. He was an intellectual, brilliant, highly educated, and in continual need of a haircut. He was possessed of a work ethic like I have never seen. He had the energy of three men, all of it directed exclusively into his job. And as a matter of deeply held faith, Smokin’ Joe believed that everyone else in his sphere of influence should as well. He worked constantly, and so did his staff. He had no known outside activities. Even while in port, a light week at the office included 80 hours with some of it on Sunday. Out of desperation, a group of junior officers seeking to distract him bought him a puppy. It ended up back at the pound within a week. When we heard he had married, we assumed it must have been an arranged marriage or perhaps a mail order; we could see no way in which he had time for courtship.

His direct staff, a dozen or so officers and chiefs, were continually at the edge of exhaustion. We lucky ones, merely stationed on one of his ships and thus protected by the sovereignty of our Captains and a couple of layers of command, both pitied and hated them. The Commodore’s remorseless pursuit of squadron perfection came at us via these staffers. Their interference with our daily routine was constant and aggressive. During the standard in port workday, we fielded a continual stream of queries, “requests” for information, direction on specific issues, interrogatives as to when they might expect the next update, and firm “recommendations” on appropriate courses for any and all planned activity. After standard working hours, this continued unabated into the night, forcing the 24-hour rotating duty section to respond as best they could or stiff-arm if possible. God, how we cursed them. The Commodore himself was so damn likeable; we directed much of our irritation towards his minions. They were not “The Staff,” or “the DesRon” (Destroyer Squadron), they were “The Fucking Staff.” And they were on the phone. Again. It became normal. And we were the best damn squadron in the Navy. We just didn’t realize it.

When he left, the officer wardrooms of four navy ships breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, we could operate like a normal squadron. We could run our ships and departments, rather than the Commodore trying to do it by proxy. We were happy as clams. At first.

It started with little things; queries to DesRon went unanswered. The Staff seemed unaware of significant events happening on our ships despite standard reporting. Long term multi-ship planning slacked off. And almost without even realizing it, certainly without recognizing the absurdity of it, we caught ourselves noting aloud that “This wouldn’t have happened under Smokin’ Joe.” Against all odds, we missed our old staff. We missed their near infallibility, their supreme competence, their constant push for better and more.

Yesterday, the vet put up a new post in light of Sestak’s career developments, titled “Senator Smokin’ Joe Sestak“, going out on a limb in putting his money on Sestak, concluding:

On a more personal, and less tangible note: Sestak is not to be underestimated. He is brilliant, driven, and possesses uncanny energy. You will not out hustle Joe Sestak. He will campaign relentlessly, 20 hours a day, multiple events per day, and he will appear fresh and intelligent at every stop. His staff will look like death warmed over, but he will be fine. This is who he is.

I’ll only add one thought:

Right now, Sestak is low on name ID. However, if he declares against Specter, the limelight will be there. Given Specter’s high profile defection, combined with the specter of Joe Lieberman, this would become, in my opinion, the marquee primary race of 2010. Sestak would begin with an advantage that longshot primary challengers to longtime incumbents almost never have…media oxygen, and plenty of it. He could write his own ticket as far as coverage and profile is concerned. That goes a long way to erasing his early polling deficit at the very least along the lines of name ID.

So what plays? If you’re running an already high-profile race against a recent convert to the party and the party establishment are wishy-washily against you but you have a fair bit of grassroots support and the wind at your back, what’s the difference between closing the gap and closing it enough to win?

Well, hustle.