Pat Meehan can work a room, and the room he hopes to be working next year is the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The gregarious one-time U.S. prosecutor, smiling and shaking hands as he zigzagged through a room of supporters and journalists at the Capitol Hill Club, traveled to Washington this week as one of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s designated “Young Guns” - the NRCC’s premier recruits in a full-bore drive to reclaim control of the House in November’s midterm elections.
Mr. Meehan, 54, running for an open seat in a swing district in the suburbs of Philadelphia, impressed party elders with his campaign’s organizational drive and fundraising ability. He boasts one of the largest campaign war chests of any House challenger in the country, having already raised more than $790,000.
But he joked in an interview that he went into law - and now into politics - because he could not realize his real life’s ambition.
“I think every young kid wants to pitch in a World Series, but I learned early on that that wasn’t going to happen,” he said with a laugh.
But in a year in which GOP strategists speak hopefully of a “wave election” that could change the balance of power in Washington, Mr. Meehan’s decision to enter the race in Pennsylvania’s 7th District is no laughing matter.
If the Republican Party hopes to reclaim the House this fall, its fortunes are likely to ride on the shoulders of candidates like Mr. Meehan. The party is on the offensive, touting its new candidates this year as the best crop of recruits since the watershed election of 1994, when the GOP reclaimed control of Congress after 40 years in the minority.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and other senior House Republicans helped create the NRCC’s Young Guns program in the 2007-08 election cycle. The higher visibility, it is hoped, will encourage party donors and fellow Republican officeholders to contribute to their campaigns.
NRCC spokesman Tony Mazzola said the organization looks at every aspect of a candidates campaign, from infrastructure to communications, when selecting its top prospects. The program sets benchmarks for other candidates and allows them to move up as they reach these goals.
“The goal is to build the most competitive, effective campaigns across the country,” Mr. Mazzola said.
Other Young Guns include Vaughn Ward, a former CIA officer running in Idaho’s 1st District; state Sen. Andy Harris, challenging Democratic freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. in Maryland’s 1st District; and Martha Roby, a Montgomery City Council member running against freshman Democrat Rep. Bobby Bright in Alabama’s 2nd District.
Mr. Meehan, a one-time referee in the National Hockey League who built a record of fighting high-level public corruption during his seven years as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, at one point last year was widely expected to make a run for governor.
But now he is eyeing the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat who is leaving the House to pursue a primary challenge of his own to Sen. Arlen Specter.
Democrats say they will not give up the seat in the state’s southeastern corner without a fight.
State Rep. Bryan Lentz, a former Army Ranger and prosecutor who is Mr. Meehan’s most likely Democratic challenger, has raised nearly $600,000, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Vincent Rongione, Mr. Lentzs campaign manager, dismissed Mr. Meehan as a career politician whose record is less impressive than it sounds.
“He has never personally prosecuted a case and his entire career has been backroom deals and political patronage of the exact same type of politics that he claims to have cleaned up,” Mr. Rongione said, adding that the “Young Guns” tag will not help the Republican at the grass-roots level where the election likely will be decided.
Mr. Meehan said in the interview that assuming the U.S. attorney’s post just five days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks proved a real-world test of his legal and leadership skills.
“We were told by the president and the attorney general, ‘Youve got to pull your region together, ” Mr. Meehan said, recalling a meeting in the Pentagon shortly after the terrorist strike. Weeks later, the anthrax scare began in New Jersey, right across the river from his district.
Although the Cook Political Report rates the 7th District as leaning slightly Democratic, Republican Curt Weldon held the House seat for 20 years before being ousted by Mr. Sestak in 2006. Barack Obama easily carried the district in the 2008 presidential election over Republican John McCain, but recent national polls indicate the GOP is poised for a substantial rebound this fall.
The political handicapping service last week rated the 7th District race a “tossup.”
“This is one of the key swing districts in the United States,” said Mr. Meehan, “because as go the suburbs of Pennsylvania often goes the state of Pennsylvania. And as Pennsylvania goes often has an impact on the presidency.”