Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 20, 2006
48 Days Until Election Day

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

After a two-day break, we return with discussion on what is probably the premiere individual contest of this election year, the battle to be the Junior Senator of the Keystone State.

Earlier this year, it appeared that two-term Republican Senator Rick Santorum’s career in Washington was all but finished, but his campaign against Democrat nominee Bob Casey Jr., the state Treasurer, has tightened considerably in recent weeks, and while Santorum remains behind, momentum is clearly on his side. Will it be enough though, or will the comeback fall just short?

Santorum is a staunch conservative who began winning elections in Democrat friendly areas as a young man and he has never lost an election. Few doubt his political skills and a proven to ability to have in the past appealed to blue-collar “Reagan Democrats”, in a state where such a group is a key constituency. Many conservatives love Santorum for the clarity of his positions and his willingness to stand by his convictions, no matter the potential political cost. He also had ambitions of continuing to climb the ranks of the Senate Republican leadership if given another term, and his name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for President one day down the road, although Santorum ruled out a 2008 bid many months ago.

Such a factor may be why Santorum has been so vulnerable over the past couple of years. His conservatism, especially on social issues, has been seen as a liability among many, including moderate suburban Republicans and Santorum began exhibiting a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth by making controversial comments such as a passage in a book he penned in which it could have been perceived that he believed that women should not work out of the home. As these controversies began to pop up around Santorum and as Republicans nationwide began to take a hit in the polls, Santorum’s numbers started to fall as well, to the extent of his being ranked as the least popular of all Senators within their home states. More recently though, Santorum has improved to the extent where his job approval rating is just slightly below 50 percent. That might be surprising, considering that at one point earlier in the year, Santorum had trailed Casey in the polls by as much as 23 points. Being the polarizing figure that he is though, those who dislike the Senator really dislike him with an intense passion. Defeating him has become a top priority among liberals around the country and they had been feeling confident of such an outcome for several months.

In discussing Santorum and his period of severe political vulnerability, it might be worth mentioning that some of that problem may ironically involve his fellow Pennsylvania conservatives. Back in 2004, out of personal loyalty and due to political realities related to keeping the seat, Santorum offered strong support to his home state Senate colleague, the much more liberal Arlen Specter, in a very competitive GOP primary against a conservative Congressman. The support of Santorum might have very well made the difference in Specter holding on, but some conservative activists were greatly disappointed with Santorum for that action, especially as Specter continued to cause them headaches after his reelection, and those activists vowed to not lift a finger to assist Santorum in his reelection efforts. That political damage might have been seen in the polls, but it probably is that those voters will come to realize that this election could be crucial, and they will eventually winding up supporting the incumbent in heavy numbers.

As for Santorum’s opponent, the search for the strongest possible contender began in earnest well over a year ago. Democrats found that Santorum fared pretty well in polls against several potential candidates, except for one, Bob Casey Jr., the namesake son of the late former Governor. Casey, who had just been elected State Treasurer, after having served as State Auditor, was popular and very well respected. Ironically, the reason that Casey was believed to be the strongest possible opponent for Santorum is that, like his father in his political career, he took some conservative positions on social issues, such as a Pro-Life view on the contentious issue of abortion. It certainly appeared that Casey would be able to peel away the Reagan Democrats who had supported Santorum in the past over issues such as abortion and guns, while also managing to win very heavy numbers of liberals and other Democrats who just flat out cannot stand Santorum, and would be willing to vote for Casey, even if they disagree with him on some issues. While Casey’s views on issues such as abortion were enough to earn him a couple of left-wing primary opponents, including one who had a very visible presence on the liberal blogosphere, Casey more than easily captured the Democrat nomination this June, perhaps signifying that Pennsylvania Democrats are most interested in electability and are motivated to defeat Santorum.

That is not to say that Casey’s Senate campaign has been a textbook example of political success however. He has many vulnerabilities and perceived weaknesses as a politician. Back in 2002, he ran for Governor, and led by very wide margins in the polls, until his campaign basically began to fall flat and he was easily surpassed by the now Governor Ed Rendell in the Democrat primary. Casey is not viewed as a particularly strong campaigner or possessive of a magnetic personality. Many speculated that he was pushed into a Senate race against Santorum as the “great Democrat hope” before he had much time to consider all the implications of such a race, and that he would rather of focused on trying to get elected Governor one day. Early on the campaign trail, Casey managed to avoid saying much of anything substantive and some speculated that his heart was really not in the race, and that he would be in trouble once the very well funded Santorum’s hit the campaign trail and television airwaves where the contrast of personalities and passion would be present. Some evidence suggests that those fears among Democrats may have been somewhat valid. Casey might also be hurt by the perception of being an overly ambitious politician who twice now has begun statewide campaigns for higher office, immediately after being sworn into other statewide offices. Despite the name recognition and political success in some races, the Casey family has still actually lost more races in Pennsylvania than they have won.

Despite those potential problems, Casey has attempted to lay out the case for what he would do in the Senate, but his campaign is still considered to be pretty short on specifics when it comes to issues like Iraq or Social Security. Recently, the two candidates debated on Meet the Press, and the general consensus among people both on the left and right was that Casey was too subdued and did not show enough fight compared to the feisty Santorum. The incumbent’s campaign is clearly looking forward to having future face to face encounters, believing that they can score points against the Democrat in those venues.

Casey will continue to hope that the race will primarily be a referendum on Rick Santorum, where his own candidacy rationale is not as important as the record and ideology of his opponent, in such a swing state, that has seen Democrat success in recent elections. For several months, Casey held a consistent double-digit lead in the polls against Santorum, which rose to as high as 23 percentage points in one survey. At those points, things looked so bleak, that some Republicans hoped that Santorum would drop out of the race (perhaps at a very late date) if it would be possible for him to be replaced by a more viable GOP candidate. More recently though, based in part on a strong television advertising campaign on behalf of the Republican, just about all those polls have shown Santorum closing the gap considerably to the point where the deficit is now reduced to between five to eight points. The one exception is a Gallup survey from August that shows Casey’s lead being a very healthy 18 points. Democrats certainly would take heart from that result, but considering that multiple other polling outfits are showing the race much closer, and with movement in Santorum’s direction, it is quite possible that the Gallup poll was an outlier. Future polls on this contest will be intensely devoured by political junkies everywhere.

An important component in this race is the potential of the Green Party to prevent Casey from winning the election. As mentioned, Casey’s conservative social views, which mirror Santorum in some regards, was seen as one of the strengths in appealing to traditional swing voters. However, many liberals have a hard time swallowing that aspect of Casey’s political identity. A few interesting surveys have shown that when voters are made aware of the fact that Casey is Pro-Life, he actually loses support. There is much attention in Pennsylvania being paid to the candidacy of Green Party activist Carl Romanelli, who was assisted in his quest to win a spot on the ballot by Republicans and Santorum supporters, precisely because they recognized that he could take significant votes away from Casey. Democrats have sued to knock Romanelli off the ballot, but a court decision this week seems to indicate that he might be there to stay. His candidacy is currently polling at around 5 percent, which could very well be the difference in the race. While Santorum has gained ground, it still looks like he would have a very hard time getting over the hump to actually win a majority of the vote. With Romanelli as a liberal alternative though, Santorum may only need 47 or 48 percent of the vote to win reelection.

And so, as we inch closer to the month of October, we are witnessing a fascinating race where the challenger remains ahead and the incumbent still has to be considered the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the country. However, he clearly has momentum at his back and if there is more of that movement to be tapped, Santorum very well may win this race. The political environment for an outspoken conservative Republican might be difficult in Pennsylvania this year, perhaps just too difficult, but Santorum has been described as the ultimate political scrapper who will not go down without one heck of a fight. Casey is very likely counting the days until the election, but he is not considered a strong campaign closer.

Casey’s campaign will continue to try to make the race about Santorum and nothing but Santorum, especially trying to tie him to President Bush as a sort of rubber stamp. For his part, Santorum has been pretty steadfast in saying that he continues to support the President, but has also pointed to some differences, such as the hot-button issue of immigration reform in which he feels there are political points to be scored for this election. Santorum will try to make the race more of a contrast on issues and who would be a more effective advocate for the state. In a somewhat fascinating development, Democrat Governor Rendell, who is looking like a stronger favorite to win reelection this year, was recently quoting saying that Santorum has a record of delivering strong results for the state, and while Rendell supports Casey’s candidacy, he has said that he will not speak a negative word about Santorum or urge people to specifically vote against him. There was also some hay made over the fact that Rendell indicated he would campaign “with” Casey, his former Gubernatorial rival, and not “for” him. That might just be semantics, but the Casey camp may regret the fact that the Governor, who basically controls a strong Democrat operation in the Philadelphia area, is not going to be willing to try to dirty up Santorum for them. The Santorum campaign of course will try to make sure as many people as possible are aware of the very nice comments that Rendell made, across party lines, about his effectiveness as a Senator.

One of the issues of the campaign that could hurt Santorum is that of residency. There has been much made over the fact that Santorum lives most of the time in suburban Virginia with his wife and fairly large brood of children. Part of that controversy has also involved if Pennsylvania taxpayers should cover the costs of the Santorum children’s education in an online school they attend in their Virginia home. Considering that Santorum used the residency issue to help unseat a Democrat incumbent in his first House campaign, the perception of hypocrisy could prove to be damaging. However, the Santorum campaign recently began running a pretty effective ad in which all the Senator’s kids make the case to the camera for their father and his desire to be around his family as much as possible. That ad might make it much more difficult for Democrats to try to push the issue.

The bottom line to all this is that the race has probably now tightened to the extent where it can be considered a tossup, which could go either way. Incumbent Governors and U.S. Senators have tended to be reelected in Pennsylvania more often than most other states. I still tend to worry that while Santorum’s comeback is extremely impressive, he might have just been too far behind to begin with, and will just run out of time to fully gain enough support to win and that he will fall short on Election Day. It would be practically beyond belief that when all is said and done, not a single Republican Senate seat changes hands this year, and Pennsylvania still is slightly the most likely to be the best possibility. I hope to be wrong of course, and if polls show the race continuing to tighten, and if Santorum manages to win debates, keep a good deal of focus on Casey himself (beyond the humorous example of doctored Casey college photos which attempt to correct a “unibrow” problem), and finds a noticeable protest vote among liberals for Romanelli, he just very well might win the whole thing.

Santorum still has to be considered in the political danger zone, but the claims of his political demise, which date back over a year, might very well have been quite premature.

Santorum campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 15 D, 8 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 42 D, 48 R