Nine Republicans are vying for the seat held by Sen. Bob Casey Jr. in 2012, and political experts are weighing the Pennsylvania Democrat’s vulnerability.
“The Republicans (are) making sure they have someone in place who may be able to capitalize on the anti-Washington mood” among voters, said Kevan Yenerall, a political science professor at Clarion University.
That strategy might work if his constituents view Casey — a former state treasurer, auditor general and the son of a governor — as being outside of mainstream Pennsylvania politics, but that could be a hard sell.
Eight men and one woman have declared they’ll run in the state’s Republican primary on April 24, seeking to take on Casey in November. Though only a few might have statewide name recognition, at least one candidate is running television ads. Several have run for office before. Of the nine, only Sam Rohrer of Berks County has political experience, as a former nine-term state House member. He ran for governor last year.
Two candidates hail from Western Pennsylvania: Tim Burns, a Washington County businessman who ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Congressman Mark Critz last fall, and Tom Smith, a former coal company owner and one-time Democratic Party committeeman in Armstrong County. Smith is airing TV ads in Western Pennsylvania.
“The list of candidates is notable not for who is on it, but who is not on it — namely, a statewide elected official or a sitting congressperson,” said Kyle Kondik, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Casey, who visited Pittsburgh on Monday to talk about a “buy-American” bill, told the Tribune-Review he doesn’t take any of the candidates lightly. He expects the economy to remain the focus of the election.
“The most important issue to Pennsylvanians is spurring the conditions that lead to job creation and preserving jobs,” he said.
Burns said he’s running in part to reduce the stagnant manner in which Congress acts, noting the Senate failed to move 15 House-passed bills this year.
“We need to change that,” Burns said. He believes Casey isn’t a conservative Democrat and should be held accountable for certain votes, “like his support of the health care reform act and the stimulus bill.”
Casey said the stimulus package helped to save a million jobs, but he acknowledges, “There is a lot more work to be done.” His Invest in American Jobs Act would increase government purchases of domestic products for infrastructure projects.
Smith foresees a dim future if things don’t change and said he thinks Casey lost his way in Washington. “He ran as a conservative Democrat; his votes show an entirely different person,” Smith said.
“I have no problem with him personally, but the standard line that he votes 98 percent of the time with (President) Obama is not just a slogan but a fact,” he said. “… Casey has proven that he is disconnected with Pennsylvanians.”
A recent Public Policy Poll showed Casey leading his GOP rivals in potential matchups. The poll of 500 voters, conducted Nov. 17-20, gave Casey a 46-37 percent advantage over Rohrer and double-digit leads over the others.
Voters like Casey, said Robert Maranto, political scientist at the University of Arkansas. “He has been liberal enough to win a primary and conservative enough to win a general (election), but has not been seen as incredibly influential or a world-class campaigner,” he said.
Maranto doubts the GOP will sweep Senate Democrats from power, even if the party wins the White House in 2012. “Still, if it is a good Republican year,” he said, “we could expect Casey to be among those Democratic senators one could see going down.”
Casey said his opponents play politics when they point out that he didn’t accompany Obama on visits to Pittsburgh and Scranton, Casey’s hometown, this fall. Casey’s no-show at those events brought criticism from the national Republican Party.
Casey said he stayed on the job. “I have only missed five votes in five years,” he said.
Obama doesn’t share Casey’s popularity in the state, despite the Democratic Party’s voter registration advantage — 4.14 million to 3.03 million Republicans. The president’s job performance approval rating in Pennsylvania deteriorated to 42 percent in last month’s Public Policy Poll.
“Look, I have not always been on the same side as the president, or the administration or the Democratic Party,” Casey acknowledged, citing his vote against the Free Trade Agreement that he said “put American workers at a disadvantage.”
Kondik said he believes one or more of the Republicans could become a good contender.
“Several outsider, Republican unknowns won major races last year,” he said, pointing to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. “But it’s hard to judge at this point.”
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