By Jeremy P. Jacobs - 07/29/09 07:21 PM EDT
After trying and failing to recruit him in the last two cycles, Democrats have convinced Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) to challenge Dent next year.
This is the first time Dent has faced a serious challenger, Democrats claim, and Callahan represents the party’s plan to stay on the offensive in the Keystone State.
“We intend to focus on his record,” said Shawn Millan, Dent’s deputy campaign manager. “The good news is this is the first candidate that Charlie’s ever run against that has a record of his own.”
And Republicans note that Callahan appears to be running for two offices simultaneously: Congress and reelection as mayor. That, they said, will likely be an issue in the race.
Local political observers expect it to be a tough fight.
“Callahan will be the best challenger, far and away, that Charlie Dent has faced since he’s run for Congress. That’s almost a certainty,” said Chris Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.
“If you look at the district, Callahan is just clearly the type of candidate that the Democrats have been hoping for.”
Democrats have aggressively reached out to Callahan since 2006 but Callahan has been equally steadfast in his refusals. In one 2006 phone call, then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel and Callahan reportedly had a profanity-filled exchange about running for the seat.
With Callahan opting out the past two cycles, Democrats failed to land a top-tier challenger and Dent has coasted to reelection by double-digit margins.
In his announcement, Callahan stressed his economic record and didn’t shy away from going after Dent.
“Our economy is in peril because of years of policies supported by Charlie Dent that led to record deficits and skyrocketing unemployment,” Callahan said. “He went to Washington and left the Lehigh Valley behind, and I can no longer sit back and watch him vote time and time again against the best interests of the Lehigh Valley.”
Dent’s campaign took issue with Callahan’s economic message. “His rhetoric and reality are two different things,” said Millan.
Millan noted that Callahan has been advocating for a tax increase to help the economy, something that Millan called a campaign “gift from on high” during a recession.
Democrats, however, point to reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for Callahan’s voting records and financial data as a sign that Republicans are worried about him.
“It’s no wonder [Dent] has spent so much time attacking the mayor in recent weeks; he’s already running scared,” said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the DCCC.
Republicans say that the FOIA requests are “standard practice” against challengers and note that Dent now has a well-established and independent record in the district. Dent, they say, is nowhere near as conservative as former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who was the seat’s previous holder.
While Callahan is a good get for Democrats, Dent remains well-liked in the district, added Borick, the political scientist. According to his polling earlier this year, Dent’s approval rating is hovering in the high 50s and he has successfully cast himself as a centrist Republican.
“Congressman Dent has been very good throughout his career at winning Democratic votes,” Borick said.
“He calls himself conservative, but he’s clearly not an ideologue in the Rick Santorum mold,” he added, referring to the former Republican senator.
Dent’s Lehigh Valley district traditionally has been a swing district. It voted for Ronald Reagan (R) twice, George H.W. Bush (R) in 1988 and Bill ClintonBill ClintonJane Sanders emerges as Bernie's go-to messenger Sanders supporters hound FCC with complaints about media bias Five ways Trump will attack Clinton MORE (D) in 1992 and 1996. Al GoreAl GoreWill Ferrell drops out of Reagan Alzheimer's movie For Clinton, there's really only one choice for veep Judd Gregg: The case for Kasich MORE and John KerryJohn KerryInterior chief: ‘We will have climate refugees’ "Lebanizing" Syria Why Obama's 'cold peace' with Iran will turn hot MORE carried it by narrow margins in 2000 and 2004. Last year the area showed its Democratic leanings, giving President Obama 56 percent of the vote to GOP nominee Sen. John McCainJohn McCainExperts warn weapons gap is shrinking between US, Russia and China McCain delivers his own foreign policy speech Republicans who vow to never back Trump MORE’s (Ariz.) 43.
Dent succeeded Toomey in 2004 when Toomey challenged then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the GOP Senate primary.
Dent beat Democratic businessman Joe Driscoll by a staggering 20 points that year. He’s gone on to win by double digits in each of his reelection bids, including his 17-point win over local Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bennett in 2008.