Faced with a biennial fight to hold onto his marginal House seat, and recognizing the need for national Democrats to fill a gaping void in a key battleground state, Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) is entertaining the idea of running for Senate in 2004.
Hoeffel confirmed Tuesday that he had been approached and asked to consider running for the seat currently held by Sen. Arlen Specter (R), although he denied initiating any of the conversations about a bid.
Still, he stopped short of closing the door on the possibility of taking on either Specter or Rep. Pat Toomey, who are squaring off in the April 2004 GOP primary.
“At this point, I expect to be running for re-election to the House,” said Hoeffel, who is also viewed as a potential challenger to Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2006.
Although accounts vary on whether the Congressman or his associates are reaching out to others about a potential run, one knowledgeable Democratic source said a meeting between Hoeffel and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials is set for this week.
Democrats so far have come up short in their efforts to recruit a top-tier Senate challenger in the Keystone State, and Hoeffel is among a number of people with whom the committee is still talking.
After Philadelphia 76ers general manager Billy King said last week he has no interest in running, energy company CEO Marsha Perelman and environmental interest group president John Hanger are two of the Democrats’ few remaining prospects.
Neil Oxman, Hoeffel’s media consultant, maintained that the three-term lawmaker has not moved beyond the listening phase when it comes to considering the race.
“I think the stage of what’s happening here is that people are talking to Joe and he’s listening,” he said. “Real people have talked to him about this. … When they talk to you about it, you have to listen.”
Hoeffel said he had no timetable for making a decision about running, but Oxman said the Congressman could wait until the end of the year before making a move.
“I don’t think someone like Congressman Hoeffel would have to get into the race before around the end of the year,” he said.
If Hoeffel were to vacate his suburban northeast Philadelphia 13th district, House Democrats would be forced to spend valuable resources to defend the swing seat.
The party is closely watching at least three other Caucus members in marginal districts who could also potentially opt into Senate races next year: Reps. Brad Carson (Okla.), Bob Etheridge (N.C.) and Allen Boyd (Fla.).
A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which closely monitors the potential open-seat landscape, said Hoeffel has given no indication that he is looking to move on.
“We don’t have any indication from him that he’s leaving,” said Kori Bernards.
Since ousting then-Rep. Jon Fox (R) in 1998, Hoeffel has never been elected with more than 53 percent of the vote. Still, he is the first Democrat to be re-elected to the 13th in more than 80 years.
He received his lowest vote percentage last year when he took just 51 percent against wealthy ophthalmologist Melissa Brown (R), after the district’s party registration makeup was changed only slightly. Then-Vice-President Al Gore would have won the redrawn district 55 percent to 42 percent in the 2000 presidential contest.
Oxman said the continual re-election fights were not the basis for Hoeffel’s Senate exploration. “You don’t go run for the Senate because you’re concerned about your House seat,” he said.
But his ability to win the marginal seat is also viewed as an asset in a potential Senate bid. Adding to the enticement is the prospect of not facing a crowded primary field and a GOP nominee potentially weakened by an intraparty fight.
Still, one Democratic aide gave little merit to a potential Hoeffel Senate candidacy.
“Members are flattered all the time” when they’re being talked to about running for Senate, the aide said.