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(John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter: @cnhipa.)

The race for U.S. Senate in 2016 is so far off that former Congressman Joe Sestak is starting with a walk.

That might make sense — begin with a warm-up exercise.

Republicans are greeting the prospect of a rematch between their party’s freshman Sen. Pat Toomey and Sestak with something approaching glee.

There’s some justification for that since many Democratic power brokers are clearly unconvinced that Sestak has earned a second shot against Toomey — even if he is kicking off with a ground campaign that involves trekking more than 400 miles from one end of the state to the other in combat boots.

Some of the partisans’ reluctance may be leftover ill will from Sestak’s decision to disregard party leaders in his last bid for Senate in 2010.

At the time he was the “political loner” — a label given him by the National Journal — who irked Democratic leaders by challenging, and beating, Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in the primary.

“If Joe Sestak is the nominee in 2016 for U.S. Senate, we will once again lose to Pat Toomey,” T.J. Rooney, the state Democratic Party chairman in 2010, grimly told the Journal.

Other in-state analysts aren’t so sure.

“Whether he’s the best candidate I don’t know, but he’s a viable candidate,” said Thomas Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Sestak — or any Democrat facing Toomey — will likely run in more favorable circumstances than when Sestak lost to Toomey in 2010.

That campaign was dominated by backlash against the president, Obamacare and a slow economic recovery. It ended in a wave of Republican victories: GOP candidates picked up 64 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate (including the one in which Toomey now sits.)

Despite that, Sestak lost by just 2 percentage points.

Next year’s election looks to be different.

“It will be a presidential year when Dems turn out in greater numbers,” said David Kershaw, political science professor at Slippery Rock University.

That could be particularly significant if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Baldino said. The former first lady and Secretary of State is popular in Pennsylvania. Her father and brother played football for Penn State.

“She would help any Democrat running for Senator,” Baldino said.

A Democratic candidate also benefits from a numbers advantage. The party has 1 million more members in Pennsylvania than do Republicans. That matters more in statewide races, like a U.S. Senate election, where gerrymandering doesn’t come into play, Kershaw said.

Sestak will have to overcome the lack of enthusiasm from his party’s honchos, Baldino said. And he’ll need support to compete, since Toomey, as incumbent, will have plenty of money to spend.

In his favor, the former congressman brings name recognition and a personal narrative that involves a naval career in which Sestak attained the rank of admiral.

Sestak also benefits from a vacuum of better candidates in the wings.

Sestak’s record of independence that has alienated party big-wigs might impress voters. If he uses a stroll across the state to make a case to voters face to face, it can’t hurt his chances, Kershaw said.

“If he plans to stop and talk to people and treats them as human beings by listening to their concerns, it’s not a bad plan,” he said. “People increasingly feel removed from politics, and don’t feel elected officials hear them.”

Sestak’s stroll also has the virtue of ensuring that he gets media attention along the way. That, in itself, is not a bad thing for a candidate trying to demonstrate that he’s still relevant.

(John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspapers Holding Inc. He can be reached by email at jfinnerty@cnhi.com or on Twitter at @cnhipa.)

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