Politics & Policy

Decline of the Casey Democrats

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. (File photo: Mark Makela/Reuters)
Are Pennsylvania’s conservative Democrats still a factor? And will they return Bob Casey Jr. to the Senate?

In Pennsylvania, “Casey” is a name to conjure with. One of Pennsylvania’s incumbent senators carries that name, but the person who still comes to most Pennsylvanians’ minds when it is mentioned is his father, Governor Bob Casey Sr. At a time when such things were possible, Governor Casey set himself apart from the increasingly liberal Democratic party nationwide, pulling together strands of New Deal populism and Catholic social values in a platform that was redistributionist but also pro-life, anti-death-penalty, and supportive of the right to bear arms. As a result, he attracted the votes of many Democrats who would otherwise have left their party. What happens to these “Casey Democrats” in Pennsylvania in 2018 may preview the actions of conservative Democrats across the nation in years to come.

If the combination of conservative Catholic social values and liberal economic policies seems anomalous in 2017, it was only slightly less so in 1986, when Casey Sr. won his first election as governor of Pennsylvania. The voters sent him back to Harrisburg for four more years in a 1990 landslide in which he carried 66 of 67 counties. No one is likely to do that again anytime soon, given the parties’ self-sorting into rural and urban clans.

Casey’s independence on social issues stood out even then. Two episodes from his career made the biggest impression on the national audience. First, his enforcement of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act made him the named defendant in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the case that redefined abortion law after Roe v. Wade and remains, with minor alterations, the law of the land today. Second was his attempt to address the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Even then, the Democratic hierarchy was hardening its hearts against pro-lifers, and it refused to let the governor of the fifth-largest state in the union proclaim his political apostasy before the gathered crowds.

The governor remained popular at home, though, and his social conservatism kept many Catholic voters in the Democratic column even as their counterparts in other states shifted gradually to the Republicans. Casey Democrats were often enough to sway an election. The influential voting bloc carried on past Governor Casey’s retirement in early 1995, but whether any Casey Democrats atill exist in 2018 is an open question. Data from elections since that time suggests that Casey Democrats, like pro-life Democrats nationwide, are becoming a thing of the past.

The Casey effect certainly held in 1996, when Bob Casey Jr. ran for the office of auditor general. With a famous name in a normally below-the-radar race, Casey Jr. won 56 percent of the vote. That was 7 percentage points better than Bill Clinton, who also carried the state, and 8 points ahead of Joe Kohn, who lost the race for attorney general. With very little to recommend him for the job, the 36-year-old political scion tapped into a desire for Democrats like his father, and he professed to be one.

In 2000 Casey Jr. was reelected auditor general, again with 56 percent of the vote. That was 6 points better than Al Gore’s total, 11 points better than U.S. Senate candidate Ron Klink, and 13 better than attorney-general candidate Jim Eisenhower. Doing better than presidential candidates is impressive, but his real show of strength was in outpacing the Democratic attorney-general candidates so handily. Offices such as that turn more on the strength of parties than on the individuals, who are often fairly unknown. But by any measure, Casey did 6 to 13 points better than any other statewide Democratic candidate, a strength that we must credit to Casey Democrats.

Casey tested his strength against Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell in the gubernatorial primary in 2002 and found the limits of pro-life Democratic strength: Rendell defeated him 56–44. The defeat showed that Casey Democrats were a minority of the Democratic party. It also showed their location: Rendell carried only 10 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Nine were in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the tenth was Centre County, home of Penn State University’s main campus. Urban and suburban liberals combined with people working in academia to elect Rendell. The rest of the north, west, and center of the state, insofar as it contained any Democrats, leaned toward Casey.

With Philadelphia holding an ever-larger weight in Democratic primaries, strength outside that area seemed like a weakness. But if Casey (or some other Democrat with similar attraction to Casey Democrats) were to win the nomination, that weakness could be a strength, cutting into Republicans’ growing dominance in those areas. In 2004 that proved to be the case, as Casey, unopposed in the primary, won a race for state treasurer with 61 percent of the vote. In doing so, he ran 10 points ahead of presidential candidate John Kerry, 13 points ahead of Jim Eisenhower (running again for attorney general), and 19 points ahead of U.S. Senate candidate Joe Hoeffel.

This was peak Casey. He ran ahead — in raw votes — of Eisenhower and Hoeffel in all 67 counties and ahead of Kerry in all but three (Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery). But even then, the forces galvanizing the Democratic party were pushing it farther to the left and father away from the cultural touchstones of the generation that adored Casey’s father.

In 2006, Rendell and Casey were both on the ballot again, Rendell for governor and Casey running against Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate. Both men won in what was a very good year for Democrats. But a look at the map shows that Casey’s strength in the northeast of the state — including his home county — was fading compared to a more conventional Democrat. In total, he ran 1.6 perent behind Rendell.

Casey’s strength in the west was significant, especially considering that his opponent, Rick Santorum, was from that region of the state. But western Pennsylvania has long been more conservative than the east. The fading importance of the northeast to his electoral coalition presaged the decline of Casey Democrats statewide.

The six years Casey spent in Washington following that victory saw increasing polarization between the parties on cultural issues, the precise things that separated Casey Democrats from mainstream Dems. Those years also saw a shift in Casey himself. Moving out of his father’s long shadow, he gradually became a mainstream Democrat who merely nodded at social conservatism. In 2011, the pro-life senator voted to fund Planned Parenthood.

Casey Democrats noticed. When Casey ran for reelection, he ran just 1.5 points ahead of Barack Obama. Against other statewide Democratic candidates, the difference was even starker: Against Kathleen Kane (attorney general), Eugene DePasquale (auditor general), and Rob McCord (treasurer), Casey ran an average of 1 point behind the ticket. Any special claim he had on a segment of Democratic voters seemed to have vanished.

By 2018, one must wonder if even that 1.5-point advantage over Obama remains. After twelve years in Washington, there is no discernable difference between Casey and the average Democrat in the Senate. While still nominally pro-life, Casey has made no effort to limit abortion in any way and holds a 100 percent rating from NARAL, a far cry from the principled stand that his father took in 1992.

But if Casey no longer commands legions of Casey Democrats’ votes, what has happened to them? For one thing, age has taken a toll. Many of the Democrats who pulled the lever for Governor Casey in 1986 were blue-collar social conservatives who had fond memories of Franklin Roosevelt. Their numbers are fewer with each passing year.

Another factor may be seen in the 2016 presidential election in Pennsylvania, where the traditional areas of Casey strength shifted dramatically toward Donald Trump. Trump’s version of the Republican party is one that is comfortable with social-welfare programs while remaining conservative on social issues — sound familiar? Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania and across the Midwest was won with the help of Casey Democrats and their equivalents in other states.

So where does that leave Bob Casey Jr. in 2018? His Republican opponent is Congressman Lou Barletta, a proto-Trump from Hazelton who rose to prominence when, as mayor, he signed a law denying business permits to employers who hired illegal immigrants. He defeated Representative Paul Kanjorski, a moderate Democrat who, like Casey, did well in a district that stretched across Pennsylvania’s coal country.

If Barletta can win where Trump won, the election would be over for a Democrat who cannot pull in those conservative Casey Democrats. Yet polls of the race indicate that Casey leads by double digits, hovering just over 50 percent. That looks like a slam dunk, but those figures also include a surprising number of undecided voters.

That is similar to how Pennsylvania stood in August of 2016. As Election Day drew nearer, undecided voters shifted to Trump. That they have not done the same with Barletta in 2018 shows, perhaps, that only Trump can turn Casey Democrats into Trump Democrats. But it may also simply mean that people are paying less attention to the lower-profile midterm race.

On Tuesday, we will know the answer. If Casey can rebuild his advantage outside of greater Philadelphia, it could mean better days ahead for moderate-to-conservative Democrats. If not, we could see evidence of a deepening realignment of the parties on rural–urban lines. If Casey Democrats still exist, Bob Casey will need them this November.


The Latest