An independent candidate with a tea-party streak jumped into the Seventh District congressional race this week, adding a twist to a hotly contested open race that has remained bitter even during the summer doldrums.

And the newest candidate, Jim Schneller, a conservative who could siphon votes away from Republican Patrick Meehan this fall, has Democrats to thank for almost half his nearly 8,000 signatures, according to Meehan's campaign.

Democratic volunteers, including campaign workers for the Democratic candidate, Bryan Lentz, collected 3,800 signatures for Schneller. The campaign made no attempts to hide its involvement; Colleen Guiney, chairwoman of the Swarthmore Democrats and a woman whom Lentz this year called his most prolific signature-getter, was just one of the Democrats to circulate petitions for Schneller.

The move is not illegal, although some in political circles view it as hardball (or low-rent) politics.

On Tuesday, Meehan, whose own nominating petitions are under investigation by the Attorney General's Office for forgeries and other possible fraud, cried foul.

"Lentz's supporters and associates have engaged in an underhanded attempt to manipulate the ballot and split the conservative vote by using Jim Schneller as nothing more than a prop," said Meehan's campaign manager, Bryan Kendro. "Lentz's cynical political games show that he is a typical politician who will do or say anything to get elected."

Schneller, a former sales and marketing director who lives in Wayne, needed 4,200 signatures to join the race in the Seventh District, which is centered in Delaware County. By turning in a larger number, Schneller creates a cushion in case Meehan challenges the validity of some of the signatures.

The Meehan campaign had not decided Tuesday whether to challenge the signatures in court. To do so, it would have to show mistakes or possible fraud; that Lentz campaign volunteers were involved is not enough.

The Lentz campaign, which loudly criticized Meehan for petition problems in the spring, would not comment on Schneller's petitions.

"We're referring all questions about the tea party candidate to the tea party candidate," Lentz spokesman Bob Finkelstein said.

Schneller could not be reached for comment. Guiney and several other Democrats who helped Schneller secure signatures did not return calls seeking comment.

Lentz's motives are clear: help a third-party candidate with conservative credentials and an antiestablishment creed enter the race in the hopes that he will siphon off some of Meehan's votes, leading Lentz to victory.

It's not the first time, nor likely the last, that a candidate has supported an enemy of an enemy.

In 2003, operatives working on Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's reelection campaign gathered signatures for a Constitution Party candidate, John P. McDermott, who could have been a hindrance for the Republican candidate, Sam Katz. McDermott's name was stripped from the ballot after Katz challenged his signatures and a judge tossed enough of them to put McDermott below the minimum required.

While the practice is relatively common at the state level, it is not typically seen in congressional races, said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst and professor at Franklin and Marshall College. And it's even more rare to clearly see a candidate's fingerprints on the effort, he said.

"This is one of the top 10 congressional races in the country," Madonna said. "It just shows you how rough and tumble this race already is."

Whether Schneller's presence on the ballot could hurt Meehan in the fall remains to be seen.

"The tea party is an amorphous, eclectic, largely leaderless group," Madonna said. "They're all over the ballpark."

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or jfarrell@phillynews.com.