Conservative Republicans Are Losing Ground in Delco

Is the Meehan vs. Lentz debate JFK vs. Nixon all over again?

A new poll in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District is a shocker.

The Monmouth University poll released late last week shows Republican Pat Meehan with a slim four-point lead over Democrat Bryan Lentz. The race is now considered a toss-up with the momentum clearly with Lentz. A month ago Meehan’s internal polling had him up double digits.

Meehan, the former U.S. Attorney and former Delaware County D.A., has much higher name recognition than Lentz, and in a year when the GOP was expected to take the House of Representatives in a wave of voter discontent, the Republican machine that runs Delaware County expected Meehan to coast to victory. The 7th Congressional District takes up most of the county and a sliver of Chester and Montgomery counties. The seat is now open as Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak is running for Senate.[SIGNUP]

Adding to Meehan’s problems, this poll did not include conservative Independent candidate Jim Schneller, who is expected to pull votes from Meehan. If Schneller had been included, it is reasonable to conclude that Meehan would be tied or trailing Lentz in the Monmouth poll.

This is the scenario that Republican strategists were fearing, that the race would tighten and get increased scrutiny, that Pat Meehan would actually have to campaign. Those strategists are the first to admit that Meehan has the name and can raise money, but beyond that he is not a great candidate. Meehan’s problems in a close race are many.
I should disclose here that my wife, Dawn Stensland-Mendte, was recruited to run for the 7th Congressional seat by conservatives who do not trust Meehan and openly call him a RINO (Republican in Name Only). A longtime Republican power broker corrected me on the phone when I called Meehan a moderate by saying, “He’s a liberal!” It did not help that Meehan was unimpressive at a pre-campaign appearance at the Union League in front of the Loyal Opposition, a conservative Republican group with ties to the Tea Party. “He was embarrassingly weak on the issues,” a Loyal Opposition member told me. “When someone asked him about climate change and cap and trade, Meehan said he wasn’t really up on that issue. He couldn’t even explain card check.

Republicans admit that Meehan is an uninspiring speaker and they were hoping that would not be an issue in a landslide election. Lentz on the other hand, a war hero and Delaware County state legislator, is known as an inspiring speaker and impressive debater. A Delaware County Republican campaign strategist told me, “If I was running the campaign, I’d make certain that Meehan never appeared in the same room with Lentz.” The Meehan campaign could have used that advice. It may have saved Meehan from a disastrous performance at a debate in Havertown two weeks ago. The Daily News pointed out that Meehan was sweating more than Nixon ever did and even stumbled through his prepared closing statement. It was so bad, the Lentz campaign has been using the performance on its website to embarrass Meehan.

It is probably the reason that Meehan announced he is backing out of the League of Women Voters debate scheduled for Thursday. The Meehan campaign says they are pulling out because Independent Schneller is included.

You might think it odd that Meehan is not better on his feet, considering his resume as a D.A. and U.S. Attorney. But remember that he never argued in the courtroom; he just held the scripted news conferences. Meehan’s career has been shepherded by former Republican Senator, now Democrat, Arlen Specter. In fact, Meehan resigned his post as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania weeks before the office’s biggest case against State Senator Vince Fumo. But he was there after the case to take credit. A newspaper reporter told me, “It was sad. There was Meehan standing on the corner of 6th and Market looking for people to interview him.”

Meehan resigned the job as U.S. Attorney so he could start raising funds to campaign for governor. And that is another problem Meehan has. Although he has lived in Drexel Hill most of his life, he is still seen by some as a carpetbagger because he did not want to run for Congress in his home county. He turned down the Delco GOP in 2008 and turned them down again in 2010, until he saw he couldn’t win in the governor’s race or the lieutenant governor’s race. He only agreed to run for Congress in the 7th District when he ran out of options.

That is not to say that Bryan Lentz has an easy road ahead of him. If this election continues to be nationalized as a referendum on President Obama and his policies, Meehan could be swept into office by a political tsunami. Also, Meehan has stockpiled an impressive campaign war chest and is expected to launch a media blitz in the next two weeks. The Republican plan is to use Lentz’s votes in Harrisburg to paint him as a typical tax-and-spend Democrat, a label that is particularly damaging this election cycle:

Still, this recent poll does give Democrats hopes that they can hold at least one open seat in 2010. Expect the Democratic National Committee to start pouring money into the 7th.

The poll proves that all politics is indeed local and that candidates still matter. Having grown up in Delaware County, I know that voters there are particularly unimpressed with outside pressure.

This is one local race that the nation will now be watching with renewed interest.