Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tom Smith

What’s Going on in Pennsylvania?

The latest poll in the Pennsylvania Senate race is the sort of result that makes political observers sit up and take notice. The Rasmussen poll of likely voters shows incumbent Senator Bob Casey, Jr. leading Republican challenger Tom Smith by just one percentage point. The 46-45 percent margin is shocking because this is a race that virtually no one in either party thought would be competitive, let alone be in doubt this late in the campaign. However, it also shows that Democratic confidence about Pennsylvania being a reliably blue state may have been overstated all along.

The smart money is still on Casey to pull out a win, as well as on President Obama to take Pennsylvania without that much trouble. But both Casey and Obama have seen their leads shrink dramatically in the Keystone State in the last month. Though no Republican has carried Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988, it should be remembered that the GOP won both the governorship and a Senate seat (Pat Toomey) in 2010. Yet while Obama has maintained a consistent, albeit decreasing lead, in Pennsylvania, Casey may actually be in more trouble than his backers are willing to admit. His problems are due in part to growing Republican enthusiasm as Mitt Romney gained momentum this month. But Casey’s own shortcomings as a candidate are the major reason he finds Smith snapping at heels. If he can’t right himself, there is a chance the GOP will make up for unexpected losses elsewhere and steal a seemingly safe blue Senate seat.

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The latest poll in the Pennsylvania Senate race is the sort of result that makes political observers sit up and take notice. The Rasmussen poll of likely voters shows incumbent Senator Bob Casey, Jr. leading Republican challenger Tom Smith by just one percentage point. The 46-45 percent margin is shocking because this is a race that virtually no one in either party thought would be competitive, let alone be in doubt this late in the campaign. However, it also shows that Democratic confidence about Pennsylvania being a reliably blue state may have been overstated all along.

The smart money is still on Casey to pull out a win, as well as on President Obama to take Pennsylvania without that much trouble. But both Casey and Obama have seen their leads shrink dramatically in the Keystone State in the last month. Though no Republican has carried Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988, it should be remembered that the GOP won both the governorship and a Senate seat (Pat Toomey) in 2010. Yet while Obama has maintained a consistent, albeit decreasing lead, in Pennsylvania, Casey may actually be in more trouble than his backers are willing to admit. His problems are due in part to growing Republican enthusiasm as Mitt Romney gained momentum this month. But Casey’s own shortcomings as a candidate are the major reason he finds Smith snapping at heels. If he can’t right himself, there is a chance the GOP will make up for unexpected losses elsewhere and steal a seemingly safe blue Senate seat.

To listen to most Democrats, the explanation for what’s happened in the Senate race is readily apparent: a low-key candidate running a lackluster campaign against a millionaire willing to spend money freely. They’re not far wrong about this. Casey is well known to be a nice guy in a business filled with not-so-nice people, but he has the charisma of a plate of soggy, mashed potatoes. A non-controversial mien was the right formula six years ago when Democrats nominated Casey to knock off the controversial and widely disliked Senator Rick Santorum. But to the dismay of many Democrats, the stealth candidate of 2006 became the stealth senator. Though he can still trade on his identity as the son of a popular namesake two-term governor, Casey is a virtual nonentity in the state despite being the incumbent. Smith, a former Democrat who owned coal mines, is a political novice who won his nomination in a Tea Party insurgency. But he has avoided gaffes and spent freely. After a couple of months of the airwaves in major markets being deluged with ads denouncing Casey as “Senator Zero,” Smith has gone from a double digit deficit to being virtually tied.

The idea of Smith actually beating Casey is still scoffed at by most savvy observers. But Casey’s characteristic low-key strategy has played right into Smith’s hands, as he has dominated the political stage in the state. Even worse by granting Smith only one debate (which will be taped today and then aired on Sunday) Casey has set himself up for some real problems if the Republican is seen as holding his own or even besting the incumbent.

If the Democratic machine is able to generate — by hook or by crook — a big turnout in Philadelphia, Casey may be saved. But the era in which anyone named Bob Casey can simple put his name on the ballot in Pennsylvania and expect to cruise to victory is probably over. In a year in which Republican enthusiasm is rising in the way it did in 2010, Smith must now be said to have at least a fighting chance. So must Romney, though he may have a higher hill to climb in the state. While it might be foolish for Republicans to divert scarce resources from other battleground states to contest Pennsylvania, there’s little doubt it will not be the Democratic cakewalk that most people thought it would be only a couple of months ago.

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Big Trouble Looms for Dems in PA

Democrats have long pooh-poohed the idea that President Obama was in any trouble in Pennsylvania this year. The president romped in Pennsylvania four years ago, and the Democrats’ registration advantage seemed likely to offset any problems that might arise from a new voter ID law that (at least before a judge prevented its enforcement this year) threatened to make it a little more difficult for the party’s Philadelphia machine to observe a time-honored city tradition and cook the results. But it’s starting to look as if their confidence was misplaced. Despite the fact that the most recent state polls there were published last week, before the first presidential debate that has altered the dynamic of the race in Mitt Romney’s favor, both Siena and Susquehanna showed the president holding only a slim lead of either two or three points. That sets up Keystone Democrats for a rude awakening the next time the state is polled, though they got a foretaste of what that might mean with the publication of the latest poll in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

A Susquehanna poll published today shows incumbent Democrat Bob Casey just two points ahead of Republican Tom Smith. Casey is a popular, though lackluster, incumbent whose father (a longtime governor) is still remembered with affection, and no one believed he was in any danger of losing this year. That was certainly the case when the best the GOP could do to oppose him was Tom Smith, a Tea Party stalwart with little name recognition. The point here is that if Tom Smith is that close to Casey, the Democrat ticket in Pennsylvania may be far weaker than pundits, who have been painting the state dark blue in electoral map for months, thought. If Obama must fight hard for Pennsylvania — which has just been shifted into the tossup column by Real Clear Politics — his campaign has made a terrible miscalculation.

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Democrats have long pooh-poohed the idea that President Obama was in any trouble in Pennsylvania this year. The president romped in Pennsylvania four years ago, and the Democrats’ registration advantage seemed likely to offset any problems that might arise from a new voter ID law that (at least before a judge prevented its enforcement this year) threatened to make it a little more difficult for the party’s Philadelphia machine to observe a time-honored city tradition and cook the results. But it’s starting to look as if their confidence was misplaced. Despite the fact that the most recent state polls there were published last week, before the first presidential debate that has altered the dynamic of the race in Mitt Romney’s favor, both Siena and Susquehanna showed the president holding only a slim lead of either two or three points. That sets up Keystone Democrats for a rude awakening the next time the state is polled, though they got a foretaste of what that might mean with the publication of the latest poll in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

A Susquehanna poll published today shows incumbent Democrat Bob Casey just two points ahead of Republican Tom Smith. Casey is a popular, though lackluster, incumbent whose father (a longtime governor) is still remembered with affection, and no one believed he was in any danger of losing this year. That was certainly the case when the best the GOP could do to oppose him was Tom Smith, a Tea Party stalwart with little name recognition. The point here is that if Tom Smith is that close to Casey, the Democrat ticket in Pennsylvania may be far weaker than pundits, who have been painting the state dark blue in electoral map for months, thought. If Obama must fight hard for Pennsylvania — which has just been shifted into the tossup column by Real Clear Politics — his campaign has made a terrible miscalculation.

The closeness of the Senate race is due in large measure to Casey’s incompetence as a candidate. He won in 2006 almost by default against a deeply unpopular Rick Santorum, and got away with running what was widely considered a stealth campaign in which the nominally pro-life and pro-gun Democrat sought to avoid being pinned down on any issues. He’s trying the same trick this year, but in the absence of a highly visible opponent like Santorum, it isn’t playing as well. However, even Casey, who has one of the lowest profiles of any statewide political figure but very high name recognition, still ought to be having an easy time winning a second term against Smith. That Casey couldn’t maintain the double-digit lead he had over Smith most of the year is telling not only about his own problems but what it says about the weakness of the Democrat ticket.

The smart money will probably still be betting on Obama and Casey winning in November, but the news here is that they are going to have fight hard to do so. Republicans had hoped to make the president play defense in a state that was thought to not really be in play, and it appears they have succeeded in that quest. A determined Republican challenge in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania doesn’t mean the Democrats can’t also fight hard in swing states such as Florida and Virginia that Romney must have if he is to win, but it makes it harder for them.

But that’s putting these results in what must be seen as the most positive light for Democrats. The nightmare scenario for Obama is that not only has Pennsylvania reverted to its pre-2008 status as a competitive if blue-leaning state, but that it is genuinely in play. Even scarier for them is the prospect of a spiraling Obama dragging Casey down with him. A few more polls like this and such an outcome will no longer be viewed as a GOP fantasy.

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Reports of Tea Party’s Demise Premature

Because the Republican Party will nominate the one candidate who, at least at the outset of the contest, Tea Partiers seemed to have the least affinity for, many political observers have concluded that the movement’s time has come and gone. But as the results from a number of Senate races testify, reports of the Tea Party’s demise are, at best, premature. In Utah, longtime incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch is being forced into a Republican primary to hold on to his seat. But an even better argument for the group as a force that should be reckoned with came in Pennsylvania, where the state GOP establishment’s choice was humiliated in a primary yesterday to determine the party’s nominee to oppose Senator Bob Casey.

While the Pennsylvania GOP Senate race received minimal attention even in the Keystone state, the collapse of Governor Tom Corbett’s attempt to handpick an unknown for the nomination is noteworthy. Corbett and the state party wanted Steve Welch, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2009. But Tea Party activists embraced Tom Smith, a coal millionaire from the Western region of the state. Though Smith, 64, was a lifelong Democrat, he was able to harness the anger of the party’s grass roots and won by a huge margin over Welch, and Sam Rohrer, a state representative who also sought to appeal to Tea Partiers.

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Because the Republican Party will nominate the one candidate who, at least at the outset of the contest, Tea Partiers seemed to have the least affinity for, many political observers have concluded that the movement’s time has come and gone. But as the results from a number of Senate races testify, reports of the Tea Party’s demise are, at best, premature. In Utah, longtime incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch is being forced into a Republican primary to hold on to his seat. But an even better argument for the group as a force that should be reckoned with came in Pennsylvania, where the state GOP establishment’s choice was humiliated in a primary yesterday to determine the party’s nominee to oppose Senator Bob Casey.

While the Pennsylvania GOP Senate race received minimal attention even in the Keystone state, the collapse of Governor Tom Corbett’s attempt to handpick an unknown for the nomination is noteworthy. Corbett and the state party wanted Steve Welch, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2009. But Tea Party activists embraced Tom Smith, a coal millionaire from the Western region of the state. Though Smith, 64, was a lifelong Democrat, he was able to harness the anger of the party’s grass roots and won by a huge margin over Welch, and Sam Rohrer, a state representative who also sought to appeal to Tea Partiers.

Though Casey is closely identified with President Obama and might be vulnerable if the Democratic ticket faces a strong challenge from Mitt Romney, he is probably not in much danger of being defeated. Casey, who remains popular despite a lackluster record in the Senate, has enough resources to match Smith’s wealth, and the GOP candidate is not likely to gain much traction outside of western Pennsylvania.

But no matter what happens in November in this race, the idea that the Tea Party is a spent force in the GOP is not realistic. We may get even more evidence of this when Indiana Senator Richard Lugar faces off in a May 8 primary with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Unlike a marginal figure like Smith or Tea Party favorites who crashed and burned in the general election in 2010 such as Utah’s Sharon Angle or Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Mourdock has a good chance of holding the seat for the GOP if he beats Lugar. If Tea Partiers can topple a Senate institution like Lugar, it will be more proof of the staying power of the movement. As Pennsylvania Governor Corbett and his cronies can tell Lugar, underestimating the Tea Party is a mistake experienced politicians should try to avoid.

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