Marine Corps fighter pilot Lt. Col. Mike O’Brien voted via an absentee ballot in the 2020 election in Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb.
Weeks later, on Jan. 6, O’Brien followed the news as MAGA-hat-wearing, confederate-flag-wielding rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol while GOP lawmakers challenged the results of the 2020 presidential election.
O’Brien watched to see who contested 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 unseat the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus chairman, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA). And the retired TOPGUN F-35 stealth fighter pilot—the aviators made famous by the Top Gun movies—is opening fire on Perry’s role in trying to steal the 2020 election.
O’Brien isn’t wasting time.
He retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years in September 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 ringleaders of the insurrection that attempted to overthrow our democracy, that in order to challenge him head on, like, we obviously had to take that into account,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien is one of seven Democrats vying to replace Perry who thinks they will finally topple the six-term congressman. Democrats are convinced they have a real shot at ousting the infamous Trump ally this cycle by banking that voters in Perry’s district will reject his role in the “Big Lie” and hardline brand of politics.
“Everything from his attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election, to his extreme views on issues that are important like abortion, I think this district is primed to be extremely competitive,” Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus told The Daily Beast.
Perry, as the current leader of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, was allegedly a key player in the plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, connecting former President Donald Trump with DOJ official Jeffrey Clark, who backed Trump’s election denialism.
As part of an FBI probe into efforts to overturn the election, in August 2022, the FBI confiscated Perry’s phone with a court-authorized search warrant—though the FBI has been unable to access the phone amid legal challenges.
But as Mikus put it to The Daily Beast, politically, “it’s never a good thing with voters when the FBI seizes your cellphone.”
Democratic challengers are counting on that sentiment to turn the tides in Perry’s Pennsylvania district, which encompasses Dauphin County—home of the state capitol Harrisburg—as well as parts of Cumberland and York counties.
While the district is an R+5 in the Partisan Voting Index—basically a measure of how many more percentage points a district is Republican or Democrat—recent polling suggests Perry is vulnerable.
An October Public Policy Polling poll found that Perry has just a 34 percent approval rating in the district and holds just a two-point lead against a “generic Democratic candidate.”
The district, which was redrawn in 2018, broke for Trump by a four-point margin in 2020, but voted for Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro last year against far-right candidate Doug Mastriano by about 12 points.
Democrats point to another indicator that the area is turning blue. Democrats flipped the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners for the first time in 100 years this month. Some school board races, including in the conservative York County, have also trended Democrat.
Janelle Stelson, a former broadcast journalist from NBC affiliate WGAL covering the entire district appears to be the current frontrunner in the Democratic primary. She has high name recognition from her years as a local anchor, and an October PPP poll shows her in first place at 33 percent of voters—13 points ahead of her nearest competitor.
Stelson, too, has a grudge against Perry undermining Pennsylvania votes.
“I can’t imagine that people want to continue to vote for somebody who basically negated their votes,” she told The Daily Beast.
J.J. Abbott, a Harrisburg-based Democratic strategist, told The Daily Beast that Perry’s involvement in Jan. 6 gives Democrats an effective segway to tell voters about Perry’s other extremist positions, like his hardline views on abortion.
“Perry is so extreme on every issue, but the January 6 stuff just sort of provides a proof point for that, that I think is particularly persuasive with a lot of voters that the Democrat will need to win,” Abbott said.
Perry’s record on abortion is particularly primed for Democratic attacks. The Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade has invigorated Democratic voters nationally, and Perry’s firm anti-abortion record will be a target. Most recently, for example, Perry championed an effort to block the military from reimbursing travel expenses for service members seeking an abortion.
Stelson reported on the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in June 2022 and said it took a “chunk out” of her heart looking out into the camera to tell “every woman that their rights had been rolled back 50 years.”
“And, you know, Scott Perry wants a national abortion ban,” she said.
Stelson said after her two decade-plus long journalism career, she felt it was time to “move from the telling to the doing something about it.”
Just like O’Brien, that “something” is unseating Perry.
“Scott Perry is a threat to democracy, so that’s where I’m channeling my energy now,” she said.
According to the October survey, Shamaine Daniels—who challenged Perry and lost by about eight points last year—trails Stelson at 20 percent. Perry outraised Daniels, a Harrisburg City Council member, heavily last year, putting up $3 million to Daniels’ meager $400,000.
Each coming in at 3 percent in the poll includes O’Brien, Carlisle School Board member Rick Coplen, and Blake Lynch, who most recently served as senior vice president and chief impact officer at central Pennsylvania’s public media outlet.
O’Brien has put up solid initial fundraising figures. He raised over $150,000 in September, his first month as a candidate. Stelson got in the race Oct. 4, so has not yet reported campaign finances with the FEC. But according to her campaign website, she raised $100,000 in her first 48 hours in the race.
Perry had over $500,000 cash on hand as of his last FEC filing, and would likely draw heavy outside spending from conservative groups if they saw danger.
While Democrats jockey to compete against Perry, his campaign spokesperson, Matt Beynon, said the congressman has been honed in on countering the Biden administration that has left his constituents “struggling to make ends meet, feeling unsafe walking their own streets, and being embarrassed and ashamed of 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 south central Pennsylvania running mate, Congressman Perry remains lazor [sic] focused on reversing and stopping the damage caused by this administration’s failed agenda,” Beynon said in a statement.
Anti-Trump Republicans in Pennsylvania predictably aren’t buying that message and have piled onto the race to oust Perry. The centrist Democratic Welcome PAC is sponsoring the “Republicans Against Perry” initiative led by longtime Pennsylvania Republican operative Craig Snyder.
“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 can topple Perry.
The group is identifying “persuadable” voters in the district and delivering them an anti-Perry message. Republicans Against Perry has not backed a Democratic primary candidate—though they may endorse as the race unfolds. In the general election, if the campaign determines the Democratic candidate can be competitive, Republicans Against Perry intends to support their campaign.
(Beynon said the group is just like the Democrats running against Congressman Perry—“out of town, out of touch, and out of luck.”)
Perry’s GOP detractors and his Democratic challengers agree; the Freedom Caucus chairman checks the boxes as their 2024 anti-abortion, election-denying boogeyman. They are hungry to make this race about picking off a sitting duck whose politics, they argue, don’t align with the voters in the swingy district.
“I’ll say that there are single issue voters in PA-10,” O’Brien said. “And we’ve talked about some issues but there is one issue, and one issue only, it is: Who can beat Scott Perry?”