Unshakeable Sestak
© Greg Nash

Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) never really stopped running against Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) after his narrow 2010 loss. 

But despite lingering unhappiness within his own party about his last run, he might actually be able to avoid a primary challenge, allowing Sestak to focus his energy on defeating the GOP incumbent in one of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities in 2016. 

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Sestak announced in 2013 that he was already seeking another shot against Toomey. The former congressman has remained active in Pennsylvania politics since his loss, helping Democrats locally and statewide.

And his strong, early signals that he would run again might have helped scare off many other potential opponents. 

“Joe’s done a very good job since he lost to Toomey of working the state, seeing Democrats, raising money. He’s a formidable opponent in a primary,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told The Hill. 

Some Democrats are still angry at Sestak’s decision to run — and eventually beat — then-Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in 2010, believing it cost them the seat and furious he refused to be a team player, even after Democrats wooed Specter to switch parties. 

But even Sestak’s detractors acknowledge his dogged campaign style. It’s unclear who — if anyone — will step forward to run against him.

A hard-charging former Navy admiral, Sestak has worked hard to thaw relationships with Democratic power players in the state since 2010. He spent much of 2014 barnstorming the state for local candidates, trying to appear as more of a team player.

“Sestak, to his credit, has done a good job improving things. He had a real go-it-alone attitude,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist. “There’s a reason there aren’t more people poking their heads out; he ran a hell of a campaign last time, and he’s learned from his mistakes.

Most of the big-name Democrats who could run have already ruled it out.

Former Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), state Treasurer Rob McCord (D) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) have all said no, while former Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency head Katie McGinty just took a job as Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s (D) chief of staff. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D), once viewed as a possible candidate, has had a horrid year politically.

Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro might be anti-Sestak Democrats’ best remaining hope for a challenger. Shapiro represents a large swing county in the state, is close to Wolf, and many view him as a bright, rising star. But Democrats in the state say he might be more likely to stay put for now.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (D) and David Hickton, the U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania, were also mentioned as potential candidates but haven’t made any moves toward a run. A self-funding candidate might step forward, but for now, it’s unclear who if anyone will challenge Sestak.

“There’s a core of desire to see another candidate, that another candidate could jump into. But I don’t see anyone who’s ready to take on that major challenge,” said Rendell, who had endorsed Specter against Sestak in 2010.

Whether Sestak faces a serious primary challenge or can focus exclusively on Toomey could make a big difference in the battle for Senate control in 2016. Toomey already has almost $6 million stockpiled. He has worked hard to burnish his bipartisan credentials and shed his Tea Party reputation. Democrats believe if Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race MORE is at the top of the ticket for president, they’ll be well-positioned to defeat Toomey, but they acknowledge he’ll be tough to beat.

“Pennsylvanians will choose a pragmatic conservative who fights for taxpayers and families over an opponent who is likely to be an extreme liberal who would add to Washington’s overreach and dysfunction,” said Toomey adviser Mark Harris.

Sestak’s allies argue he’s gone a long way toward repairing his standing with party leaders and point out that he ran ahead of almost every other Democrat in 2010 in Pennsylvania. 

“Democratic voters tend to like him a lot. He came from behind in one month after being outspent to defeat Arlen Specter. In the general election, he ran well ahead of all the other Democrats in the state; he barely lost in a year when most other Pennsylvania Democrats were losing by big margins,” said J.J. Balaban, who made Sestak’s 2010 campaign ads. 

“And he’s already been working aggressively around the state, not just raising more than $1 million and holding hundreds of events for various Democrats across the state,” Balaban added. “He’s the hardest working candidate in Pennsylvania politics, and that counts for something.”  

National and state Democrats say it’s unclear whether a primary would help or hurt their chances against Toomey, arguing it’s far too early to handicap a race.

“I don’t know if he’ll have the field to himself, and it’s too early for us to evaluate the field, him or anyone else. It’s still 2014,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.

Ultimately, Sestak could still face a primary — most likely from Shapiro. But so far, he’s managed to keep the field clear.

“He’s not the most popular person in the Democratic Party. His personality rankles a lot of people; you hear a lot of stories. … There’s a desire from some corners for a challenger to Sestak,” said Nick Field, the managing editor of the nonpartisan website PoliticsPA.com. “But If Shapiro doesn’t run, it would be hard to find someone.”

This story was updated at 3:50 p.m.