Politics & Policy

Common Name, Uncommon Challenger

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

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Lee credits Smith’s surge to two factors: “One, he’s had adequate resources to communicate a message. Second, he has a powerful message focused on an anti-Washington populism and his strong job-creation credentials, and he’s making the case that Casey has been a reliable vote for Obama.”

Lee said his firm’s polling has consistently shown Casey to be vulnerable, with a job-approval rating under 50 percent. Casey’s average ballot score has been 45.5 percent in four months of polling — while all the movement has gone to Smith, putting him at 48 percent, up from 36 percent in July.

#ad#“This race will be very close, and Smith could win it,” Lee said. “Republicans are lining up for Romney and Smith — with hardly any drop-off. Casey gave Smith an opening by not taking him seriously; now it may be too late.”

Democratic campaign strategist James Carville famously characterized Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle.” For most Democrats, large margins in the two cities have been sufficient to score major victories statewide; in 2008, the counties that include those two cities made up 92 percent of Obama’s margin of 605,820 votes.

For many years, the Philadelphia suburbs represented the swing region of the state. Republicans are seeing a mixed bag here this cycle. They are increasingly optimistic about Bucks County, where about 435,000 are registered to vote. Toomey won this county over Joe Sestak in the 2010 Senate race, 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent. But the other major suburban counties, Montgomery County (with 553,104 registered voters) and Delaware County (about 395,000 registered voters) are looking like tougher nuts to crack for Republicans this cycle, compared with Bucks County.

 “Turnout in November will be down markedly from four years ago, when 5.9 million cast ballots in the ‘hope and change’ election,” Lee says. “I’d put the number at 5 to 5.5 million tops. Lower turnout clearly benefits Republicans both up and down the ticket. Turnout in western Pennsylvania in particular will be higher than in the east, because the issue of the economy is at fever-pitch levels out there. Romney is likely to win big there.”

Lee points to an early October poll his firm conducted for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review in the state’s newly redrawn twelfth congressional district, pitting Democratic incumbent Mark Critz against Republican challenger Keith Rothfus. The poll found that Rothfus had a narrow two-point lead, while Romney was winning the district by 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent — and this was before the first presidential debate.

“Voters in the West have antipathy toward Obama because of his war on coal, and they fundamentally believe the only good thing going for them is the natural-gas boom, and they know Romney has their back, whereas they fear what a second Obama term would mean for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas,” Lee says. “Expect Romney to win counties in the west by bigger margins than McCain did.”

In one final twist to this election cycle, Pennsylvania continues to hint that it may be in play at the presidential level. Quinnipiac, the Morning Call, Susquehanna, and Siena polls have found Obama leading by four points or less in recent weeks; the Romney campaign recently sent Paul Ryan to an airport rally in Pittsburgh. Sources close to the Romney campaign’s top strategists say the GOP team is watching the polls in this state carefully, and that high-level surrogates or Romney himself are likely to do rallies in western Pennsylvania if it continues to look close. (It helps that the campaign can easily add stops in western Pennsylvania to any of its Ohio trips.)

The difficulty of the challenge before Smith — and Romney — should not be understated; Pennsylvania has 3.1 million registered Republicans, 4.2 million registered Democrats, and about 1.1 million unaffiliated or other-party voters. And more than a few political analysts see Pennsylvania as a state that flirts with Republicans every four years before shifting, often decidedly, in favor of the Democrats. But for now, Pennsylvania is looking more purple than blue — a scenario that neither President Obama nor Senator Casey expected to face.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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