Marine Corps fighter pilot Lt. Col. Mike O’Brien voted absentee in the 2020 election in Montgomery County, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Weeks later, on January 6, O’Brien followed the news as rioters wearing MAGA hats and Confederate flags stormed the U.S. Capitol as Republican lawmakers questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
O’Brien watched to see who was contesting the vote – his vote – in his home state.
“And that was Scott Perry. That was the Republican delegation. And so at that point it became personal for me, and I wanted to do something about it,” O’Brien said.
That “something” is campaigning to dethrone the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus chairman, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA). And the retired TOPGUN F-35 stealth fighter pilot – the pilots made famous by the Tom Cruise “Top Gun” films – opens fire on Perry’s role in his attempt to steal the 2020 election.
O’Brien wastes no time.
He retired from the Marine Corps in September after 20 years and launched his campaign against Perry five days later. The Philly-area native even moved to Perry’s district in south-central Pennsylvania, Dauphin County, in part to directly challenge the incumbent.
“It became very clear to me that with Scott Perry, as one of the leaders of the uprising that tried to overthrow our democracy, we obviously had to take that into account to challenge him head-on,” O’ Briën said.
O’Brien is one of seven Democrats vying to replace Perry, who believes they will finally topple the six-term congressman. Democrats are confident they have a real chance to oust the infamous Trump ally this cycle by assuming voters in Perry’s district will reject his role in the “Big Lie” and hardline politics .
“Everything from his efforts to steal the 2020 presidential election, to his extreme views on issues as important as abortion, I think this district is poised to be extremely competitive,” Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus told The Daily Beast.
As current leader of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, Perry is believed to have played a key role in the plot to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, linking former President Donald Trump to DOJ official Jeffrey Clark, who supported Trump’s election denial .
As part of an FBI investigation into efforts to overturn the election, the FBI seized Perry’s phone with a court-approved search warrant in August 2022, although the FBI has been unable to access the phone due to legal issues to get.
But as Mikus put it politically to the Daily Beast, “It’s never a good thing for voters when the FBI confiscates your cell phone.”
Democratic challengers are banking on this sentiment to turn the tide in Perry’s Pennsylvania district, which includes Dauphin County — home to the state capital Harrisburg — as well as parts of Cumberland and York counties.
Although the district is an R+5 in the Partisan Voting Index — essentially a measure of how many percentage points a district is still Republican or Democrat — recent polling shows Perry is vulnerable.
An October Public Policy Polling survey showed Perry with just 34 percent approval in the district and only a two-point lead over a “generic Democratic candidate.”
The district, which was redrawn in 2018, broke for Trump by a four-point margin in 2020 but voted by about 12 points for Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, against far-right candidate Doug Mastriano last year.
Democrats point to another indicator that shows the area turning blue. Democrats this month flipped the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners for the first time in 100 years. Some school boards, including those in conservative York County, have also become Democratic.
Janelle Stelson, a former journalist for the district-wide NBC affiliate WGAL, appears to be the current frontrunner in the Democratic primary. She has strong name recognition from her years as a local anchor, and an October PPP poll shows her in first place with 33 percent of voters — 13 points ahead of her nearest competitor.
Stelson also harbors a grudge against Perry for undermining votes in Pennsylvania.
“I can’t imagine people wanting to continue voting for someone who has essentially denied their vote,” she told The Daily Beast.
JJ Abbott, a Harrisburg-based Democratic strategist, told The Daily Beast that Perry’s involvement in Jan. 6 gives Democrats an effective way to tell voters about Perry’s other extremist positions, such as his hardline views on abortion.
“Perry is so extreme on every issue, but the things that happened on January 6 provide some kind of evidence of that, which I think is extremely compelling to a lot of voters that the Democrat is going to have to win,” Abbott said.
Perry’s record on abortion is particularly ripe for Democratic attacks. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade has energized Democratic voters nationally, and Perry’s strong anti-abortion record will be a target. For example, Perry recently advocated an effort to prevent the military from reimbursing travel expenses for soldiers seeking abortions.
Reporting on the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in June 2022, Stelson said it took a “piece of her heart” to look into the camera to “tell every woman their rights had been rolled back 50 years.”
“And you know, Scott Perry wants a national abortion ban,” she said.
Stelson said that after her more than 20 years in journalism, she felt it was time to “move from telling the story to doing something about it.”
Like O’Brien, that ‘something’ unseats Perry.
“Scott Perry is a threat to democracy, so that’s where I can focus my energy now,” she said.
According to the October poll, Shamaine Daniels – who challenged Perry and lost by about eight points last year – trails Stelson by 20 percent. Perry heavily outraised Daniels, a member of the Harrisburg City Council, last year, donating $3 million to Daniels’ paltry $400,000.
They include O’Brien, Carlisle School Board of Directors member Rick Coplen and Blake Lynch, who most recently served as senior vice president and chief impact officer at Central Pennsylvania Public Media.
O’Brien has presented solid initial fundraising numbers. He raised more than $150,000 in September, his first month as a candidate. Stelson entered the race on October 4, so has not yet reported any campaign financing to the FEC. But according to her campaign website, she raised $100,000 in the first 48 hours of the race.
Perry had more than $500,000 cash on hand at the time of his last FEC filing, and was likely to attract heavy outside spending from conservative groups if they saw danger.
As Democrats battle Perry, his campaign spokesman, Matt Beynon, said the congressman has stepped up in countering the Biden administration, which has left his constituents “struggling to make ends meet, feeling unsafe as they walk their own streets, feeling ashamed and embarrassed by Biden’s failures on the international stage.”
“While the radical left parachutes liberal candidates into the 10th Congressional District to audition as Joe Biden’s running mate in south-central Pennsylvania, Congressman Perry remains lazor. [sic] focused on undoing and stopping the damage caused by this administration’s failed agenda,” Beynon said in a statement.
Anti-Trump Republicans in Pennsylvania predictably won’t buy that message and have begun the race to oust Perry. The centrist Democratic Welcome PAC is sponsoring the “Republicans Against Perry” initiative led by Craig Snyder, a longtime Republican politician from Pennsylvania.
“We think he deserves to be replaced, and we think he can be replaced,” Snyder told The Daily Beast.
Snyder, who led the successful Republicans For Shapiro campaign last year, believed a moderate Democrat could topple Perry.
The group identifies “persuadable” voters in the district and delivers an anti-Perry message to them. Republicans against Perry have not endorsed a Democratic primary candidate, though they may do so as the race unfolds. If the campaign determines that the Democratic candidate can be competitive, Republicans Against Perry plans to support their campaign in the general election.
(Beynon said the group is like the Democrats running against Congressman Perry — “out of town, out of touch, out of luck.”)
Perry’s Republican Party opponents and his Democratic challengers agree; the chairman of the Freedom Caucus checks the boxes as their 2024 anti-abortion and election-denying bogeyman. They are hungry to make this race about picking an incumbent whose politics, they claim, do not resonate with voters in the swinging district.
“I will say there are voters in PA-10 on one issue,” O’Brien said. “And we’ve talked about a number of issues, but there’s one issue, and one issue only: Who can beat Scott Perry?”