Sestak flap amplifies questions about Obama political operation

Jon Ward Contributor
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Rep. Joe Sestak’s admission that the White House tried to lure him out of a primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter made Pennsylvania the fifth state this cycle in which the Obama administration has tried unsuccessfully to clear the field for Democratic senate candidates.

The White House or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have tried unsuccessfully to eliminate or discourage contested primaries in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina and New York.

Many Washington political hands shrugged at White House involvement in races across the country, citing precedent under the Bush and Clinton presidencies. But Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was White House political director under President Ronald Reagan, said the Obama political operation is “pretty heavy-handed.”

“Ronald Reagan said we don’t take sides in primaries and his own daughter ran. He did not endorse her,” Barbour told The Daily Caller, referring to Maureen Reagan’s unsuccessful 1982 U.S. Senate bid.

The big takeaway for most from Sestak’s admission Thursday – he said the White House offered him a high-profile government appointment to move him out of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary – was that it amplified ongoing questions about the potency of the Obama political operation.

“They’ve been very active but the reality is that they’ve been ineffective,” said a Republican political operative, who pointed out that the White House was also unable to persuade Lisa Madigan and Roy Cooper, the attorneys general in Illinois and North Carolina, to enter their respective Senate races.

Doubts about the White House political operation often center on two men: White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and Patrick Gaspard, director of political affairs. There are whispers about both being on the outs, though Emanuel is all but certain to stay on until after the State of the Union address next January. Gaspard’s future is less clear.

Perhaps nowhere has the White House had more trouble than in New York, where Gaspard has been unable to utilize his connections in the state to get former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. to stand down from a possible challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and where earlier in the year Gaspard by most accounts mishandled an attempt to persuade Gov. David Paterson to drop the idea of running for reelection.

The White House in 2009 was able to discourage two earlier challengers to Gillibrand from running against the senator.

The White House did not comment when asked to defend Gaspard.

But the revelation by Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, bears the fingerprints of involvement by either Emanuel or by deputy chief of staff Jim Messina.

It was Messina who was reported last fall to have held out the prospect of a position in the administration for former Colorado state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in the Democratic primary this August.

“Rahm Emanuel has been trying to get rid of Romanoff ever since he did not go along with when he was told to sit down and shut up,” said Pat Caddell, a veteran Democratic strategist who was advising the Romanoff campaign until this past week, when he was dumped for calling public sector employee unions “thugs.”

During an interview with The Daily Caller this week after he was cut loose by Romanoff – a decision he said he understood – Caddell said Sestak was under the same duress as Romanoff from the White House.

“Ask about the pressure that the White House is bringing,” Caddell said.

Stacie Paxton, a Democratic communications adviser with experience at the Democratic National Committee and on campaigns, said that Sestak’s disclosure “won’t be winning him any friends in the White House.”

News of the White House leaning on Sestak – a charge the administration denied – spurred criticism from the right and defiance of the White House from the left.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called the White House behavior “Chicago-style politics at its worst.”

“It’s precisely the type of politics that then-candidate Obama pledged would never take place in his White House,” Walsh said.

Lanny Davis, an influential member of the Clinton political world and former White House special counsel, came out publicly in favor of Sestak’s candidacy against Specter, who switched from Republican to Democrat last year.

“I consider Joe a close friend from the Hillary Clinton campaign and I greatly admire him,” Davis said in an interview. “He is one of the best members of the House of Representatives that I know, with the highest integrity and political courage, which is not a surprise given his heroic military career.”

“I wholeheartedly endorse him and hope he’ll be a senator. However, I have the greatest respect for Sen. Specter, and I also respect the reasons why President Obama endorsed him,” Davis said.

Sestak and Romanoff are just the two most visible examples of White House pressure on Democratic candidates to get out of the way of incumbents or candidates that have been handpicked.

In Ohio, David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s presidential campaign and has been in close contact with the White House all year while writing a book, sent out a fundraising e-mail for Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who is the preferred candidate over Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

In North Carolina, the DSCC convinced state Sen. Cal Cunningham to enter the primary despite the presence already of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in the race. Cunningham announced his candidacy in December, on the very day that Marshall was attending the funeral of her husband, who died of cancer.

The result is a disorganized mess, in some Democrats’ opinions.

“It feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen,” said a veteran Democratic political operative.

And as the political environment has continued to deteriorate for the president’s party, there is talk now that the Democrat’s 59-seat majority in the Senate may be at risk. Republican are looking at picking up seats in North Dakota, Delaware, Arkansas, Nevada, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Attempting to assert more control over the process, the White House last month placed Plouffe in charge of Democratic strategy for the midterm elections, with an official role at the DNC.