Common Name, Uncommon Challenger
In Pennsylvania, Tom Smith could be this cycle’s most unexpected GOP winner.

Tom Smith, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania


Jim Geraghty

If you’re Senator Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, an embattled incumbent with a shrinking lead over a little-known opponent, you generally don’t want the former governor of your state, Ed Rendell, and your chief media consultant, Saul Shorr, getting into a public spat. You really don’t want that former governor griping to the press that you “haven’t run a campaign” and that you’ve run only “one ad, a stupid tea-party ad.” You don’t want your own staffer — Shorr — in turn accusing Rendell of “ignorance” and of being “the governor of Philadelphia.”

Things may be going wrong for Senator Bob Casey Jr. at the worst possible time in the campaign, and a window of opportunity for Republican challenger Tom Smith may be opening up.

Casey, the son of a popular pro-life former Democratic governor, has garnered mediocre job-approval and favorability numbers since beating Rick Santorum in a landslide in 2006. But, because of the relative strength of the Democratic party in Pennsylvania, few expected that he would face a serious challenge this cycle. Indeed, as recently as September 21, Casey led in the Real Clear Politics average by more than 15 points. As the month progressed, though, those double-digit leads grew rarer and rarer. By October, Casey’s margin approached the margin of error: a four-point gap in Rasmussen, a two-point one in the Morning Call, only three points in Quinnipiac.

Smith, a multimillionaire who made his fortune in the coal industry, is an unlikely standard-bearer for the GOP. The state’s GOP governor, Tom Corbett, backed another candidate in the primary. Smith was a registered Democrat for decades and even an Armstrong County Democratic committeeman as recently as 2010. But local Democrats said that once he was on the committee, his views and rhetoric were far too conservative for their tastes. He was active in local tea parties, and he strikes a blue-collar, populist note when he expresses impatience with Washington. In his ads, Smith projects a pleasant, straightforward demeanor, managing to denounce “what Bob Casey and the political class have done to America” without sounding nasty. He dismisses “career politicians” and describes himself as “just a farm boy that got misplaced in the coal mines and started my own business.” Pennsylvania’s electorate is one of the oldest, and Smith is running folksy ads pledging to protect Social Security and Medicare, featuring his mother.

The Smith surge aligns nearly perfectly with his campaign’s ad blitz, particularly in the Philadelphia market. One not-yet-complete survey of ads in the Philadelphia television market suggests that Smith is outspending Casey three to one.

That ad spending has made a difference, according to Jim Lee, president of Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Polling and Research, a GOP firm. Susquehanna was the only pollster to predict that Republican Patrick Toomey would win his Senate race in 2010 by two percentage points; other pollsters gave Toomey a margin of four, five, or seven points. Toomey won, 51 percent to 49 percent.


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