Friday, August 31, 2012

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate

August 31, 2012
67 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Likely Democrat

Six years ago saw Democrat Bob Casey Jr. pickup a U.S. Senate seat over a vulnerable GOP incumbent without much difficulty. While he had the reputation as a bland and cautious politician, and though some liberals disagreed with his professed Pro-Life views on the abortion issue, Casey, the son of the state's late former Governor, was seen as the strongest possible candidate back in the 2006 cycle. Since going to Washington, he has done not much to dismiss the image of him as boring and stiff, but nonetheless, his reelection is looking like a very good bet.

It remains to be seen if Casey can improve on the 17 point victory margin that elected him to the Senate in the last election. At times, there have been indications that he could be facing a more competitive contest this time around. However, his Republican opponent is not seen as a top tier candidate, and if national Republicans choose to focus on the Keystone State, they are more likely to try to win the state's electoral votes, which itself would be a modest upset.

In the April primary, Casey easily won, but still over 19 percent of Democrats voted for an unknown candidate, which may very well have been a protest vote by liberals over Casey's abortion position. As a Senator though, the Catholic Casey has cast several votes that have displeased Pro-Life groups and religious conservatives.

The Republican field to oppose Casey was crowded, though none of the contenders had any statewide or Congressional winning experience. A few candidates would decide to exit the race, but several remained. Early in 2012, the state Republican Party offered its endorsement to Steve Welch, a wealthy young businessman from the Philadelphia area, who despite having been a Democrat not too long ago, was seen as a potentially promising candidate. Despite this establishment support, Welch finished in third place in the April primary, behind former State Representative Sam Rohrer, a favorite of many grassroots conservatives, and well behind the person who would easily win the primary, with close to twice as many votes as Welch's third place showing.

Republican nominee Tom Smith is a soon to be 65 year old former coal miner from the western part of Pennsylvania who eventually became a coal mine executive. He spent years involved in local Democrat politics, but ran for the Senate in 2012 as a conservative Republican. Spending more than $5 million from his own pocket, Smith advertised heavily on television and captured large vote margins in the most Republican parts of the state.

After the primary, some looked at Smith as the kind of self-funding political outsider who could potentially be a sleeper threat to the incumbent Casey. His association with the coal issue could be pretty powerful this year over debates regarding jobs and sources of energy. The Democrat is very well funded as well though and has lead his opponent in all polls, though the race seemed to be as close as seven points based on one May survey.

More recently, Casey has extended his polling advantage over Smith and is now close to or above 50 percent in most polls, although a pretty unusual survey from Franklin & Marshall College in early August stated that Casey was ahead 35-23, with a whopping 39 percent still undecided.

Smith made negative headlines for himself this week, when in the wake of the Todd Akin firestorm, reiterated that he is Pro-Life without exceptions. The GOP nominee, who was formally a member of Barack Obama's party as recently as 2010, said that he disagreed with Akin's controversial remarks while also seeming to equate pregnancy as the result of rape, with pregnancy outside of wedlock, such as what his daughter was faced with. I have not heard any calls for Smith to exit the race, unlike the Akin situation, but perhaps that might have some to do with the fact that Smith was not expected to win anyway.

All things considered, Casey cannot be considered "safe", but it looks like he is going to win, and perhaps by a very large margin. It is good for the GOP to have a Senate candidate with the potential to pour millions of dollars in personal money into the race, so that their efforts can be focused elsewhere, but Smith looks more like a sacrificial lamb at this point than anything else. The two main contenders he defeated for the nomination might have been able to run slightly stronger against Casey, but they would have been unlikely to win as well. Casey might owe a second term in the Senate to an underwhelming GOP field.

Smith campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 14 D, 9 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 44 D, 46 R