PHILADELPHIA | Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel crossed party lines again yesterday to endorse Democrat Rep. Joe Sestak, casting the former U.S. Navy admiral and U.S. Senate candidate as someone who is not afraid to buck party leaders on Capitol Hill.
In a race where independent voters are expected to swing the election, Mr. Sestak is hoping the Hagel endorsement will help him woo the moderates who helped President Obama take the White House and Democrats win both chambers of Congress in 2008.
Mr. Hagel, who has made a habit of breaking with his party, said the U.S. Senate needs more competent and independent individuals who are not afraid to “take on … the status quo” and their “own party when that is required.”
“Joe Sestak is such a leader,” Mr. Hagel told about 100 people in attendance - several of them military men and women.
Mr. Sestak, a two-term incumbent, has worked hard to portray himself as an outsider running against his party, but Republicans say, and some polls suggest, that voters aren’t buying it and that visits from out-of-state political figures won’t help.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist, drove home the point by saying that, “the Hagel endorsement had as much impact as a spit in the Atlantic Ocean.”
Mr. Sestak and former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican who recently served as president for the Club for Growth, are running for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat. Mr. Specter’s vote for the federal stimulus package forced the five-term incumbent to switch parties and become a Democrat, and he later lost in the primary to Mr. Sestak.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sestak, who trails in polls, said he looked up to Mr. Hagel and that he believed they are cut from a similar political cloth.
“I’m an independent who happens to be a Democrat,” he said. “His governance approach is one that I always respected - as an independent.”
Nachama Soloveichik, Mr. Toomey’s spokeswoman, mocked Mr. Sestaks definition of himself.
Mr. Sestak can “change his tune day-to-day on the campaign trail, but the most telling is how he votes in Washington, and there is nothing independent about his record of voting down the line for the bailouts, the stimulus, government-run health care, the cap-and-trade energy tax, and $3.5 trillion on spending,” Miss Soloveichik said.
That doubt lingered yesterday in a yellow sign held up in the crowd that read, “97 Percent Voting with Pelosi is Independent?”
Asked about the sign, Mr. Sestak said that he does not pay attention to how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi votes and that when the party has been wrong, “I remembered what John F. Kennedy said, ‘Sometimes the party does ask for too much.’
“And when it does, I will always … be with the working families of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Mr. Toomey holds a 5 percentage point lead in an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
Mr. Hagel’s visit came on the heels of a recent endorsements from former President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a three-term incumbent who left the Republican Party to become an independent.
The endorsements underscore the importance of independent voters in the race because both men running for the seat are seen as representing the ultraliberal or ultraconservative wings of their parties.
“This is ideological trench warfare here,” said G. Terry MaDonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “Toomey can’t find anything in the Obama program he likes and Sestak can’t find anything he dislikes.”