SPRINGFIELD, PA — If the GOP wave a week from now is smaller than expected, races like the one in Pennsylvania’s 7th District might be one reason why. Republican Pat Meehan was supposed to run away with the race, but it’s now too close to call.
Republicans say they knew all along that it would be close between Meehan and Democrat Bryan Lentz, because the district in the Philadelphia suburbs is a strong one for Democrats. GOP operatives said the only national import of the race is that if Meehan wins, it means a category four or five storm in their favor instead of a category three.
The mood Monday inside Lentz’s campaign headquarters, about 20 minutes west of downtown Philadelphia, was tense.
The Philadelphia Inquirer had just endorsed Meehan for the 7th Congressional District – Senate candidate Joe Sestak’s old seat – slamming Lentz for helping a third-party candidate collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. Volunteers and aides made frequent trips outside to the curb in the strip mall parking lot for smoke breaks.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat representing the 13th District on the other side of Philadelphia, stopped by to give a pep talk to the 20 or so volunteers making phone calls for Lentz. But Schwartz, whose own seat is not in danger, could not help giving a nod to the reality of the prevailing political winds.
“It’s tough out there. I know,” Schwartz said, as one volunteer rubbed her face with her hands. “I know it’s tough out there.”
“But I think we can win,” she said, noting that Meehan, the former U.S. attorney for the eastern district, is “not a spectacular candidate.”
Lentz, a state legislator and attorney who, like Sestak, is a military veteran, having served during the Iraq war as a reconstruction officer, said in a brief interview that he thinks Meehan has taken the race for granted based on the national mood, which Republicans say is anti-Democrat and Democrats say is anti-Washington.
“They ran a Rose Garden campaign,” he said. The Lentz campaign has a counter on its website that says, “Why is Pat Meehan hiding?” and counts only 24 public appearances for Meehan to Lentz’s 113 since the May 18 primary.
A Meehan aide said Lenzt’s count is skewed because they are only counting appearances from press reports, and the Democrat has been unable to obtain Meehan’s campaign schedule for video tracking purposes.
“Bryan Lentz should spend less time worrying about Pat Meehan’s schedule and more time explaining his dismal tax and spend voting record in Harrisburg,” said Meehan spokeswoman Virginia Davis.
Over the summer, Meehan released an internal poll showing him up by double digits. The Cook Political Report has the race as leaning Republican. But Larry Sabato and Stu Rothenberg call the race a tossup.
Republican operatives concede the contest is tight.
Polls that have come out since the Cook Report classification have showed Meehan’s lead to be about two to three points.
Lentz is essentially trying to walk the same path to victory as did Sestak, hoping to win a seat in a moderately left-of-center district by appealing to its moderate and conservative voters with his military background. He’s also a good speaker.
Sestak’s candidacy in a statewide race will likely help Lentz by energizing some voters in the district, and the presence on the ballot of the third-party candidate, Jim Schneller, will likely cost Meehan some votes.
It may not matter in the end.
Meehan has a good bio, too, having gone after political corruption in Philadelphia’s city government when he was U.S. attorney. He has a money advantage, having raised about $683,000 to Lentz’s $375,000, and the Republican has had help on the airwaves from outside groups like the American Action Network.
Republicans are counting on the national dynamic to overwhelm the local factors in the race.
“Even considering Bryan Lentz is a flawed candidate, this is historically a competitive seat in a battleground state,” said a Republican operative who did not want to be named. “The electorate consists of a significant amount of independent voters who can swing, but in this election cycle polling indicates that the GOP is well positioned with this group, and that’s why this is a strong pick up opportunity for Republicans.”
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has decided to spend just under $1 million on TV ads in the final 10 days, going up on the air Saturday with an ad attacking Meehan’s position on concealed weapons permits.
DCCC spokesman Shripal Shah said Meehan “is pushing economic policies that helped create the worst recession our country has seen in decades and puts special interests ahead of the middle class.”
“He should expect that agenda to be rejected by Pennsylvanians come next week.”
Vice President Joe Biden will headline a rally for Lentz on Wednesday morning.