Real Clear Politics
Tom Smith was mowing wheat on his 400-acre Armstrong County farm last summer when he decided he would run for U.S. Senate.
Smith was born and raised on this stretch of land an hour’s drive outside Pittsburgh where coal mines neighbor corn farms, and he remembers wondering that day how the national debt would impact his grandchildren, some of whom also live on the farm. After talking it over with his wife and his pastor, Smith changed his voter registration from Democrat to Republican, and began a bid for the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat — and Pennsylvania brand name — Bob Casey.
“I was raised in a time where a farm boy, just a farm boy, who knew how to work, could follow his dream and achieve it,” says Smith, who later made millions owning several coal mines close to his farm and is self-funding a substantial part of his Senate bid. “This country gave me the opportunity to come off the farm, start my own business and do reasonably well. My goodness gracious sakes alive, who wouldn’t give a part of his life to protect that for future generations? He couldn’t have a heart if he didn’t.”
Smith, 64, sounds earnest in his willingness to leave this bucolic setting for frenzied Washington. But his challenge to Casey is a long shot. TheRealClearPolitics average shows the first-term senator leading Smith by 15 points. A June Quinnipiac University poll finds Smith trailing the incumbent by 17 points overall, and 14 points among independents. Smith is a relative unknown in the state, while his opponent is a former state treasurer, the son of the late, well-known and popular two-term Gov. Robert Casey Sr., and has a well-established organization behind him throughout the state.
But Casey has failed to break 50 percent in the polls, a potentially vulnerable position for an incumbent. Casey pointed this out in a fundraising letter recently, and warned of Smith’s ability to self-fund and the possibility of Karl Rove’s super PAC getting involved. Crossroads GPS has spent $2.7 million on the presidential race in the Keystone State but has not reserved airtime for the Senate contest. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has been working with the Smith campaign, but it is not clear whether it will spend much time and money on this race either. It has been 50 years since a Democrat was re-elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania, but Casey faces better odds than his predecessors.
The Casey brand, combined with an expected high Democratic turnout in a presidential election year (no GOP White House contender has won the state since 1988) seems to have deterred better-known Republicans from running in this race. “Had there been a Pat Toomey warmed up in the bullpen in the Republican Party to take on Senator Casey, we would not be talking today,” Smith says, referring to the Republican senator elected in 2010.
But Smith embraces his underdog status. “I like being underestimated,” he says after finishing a lunch of grilled cheese and chili at Tina’s Log Cabin Restaurant, a diner located in the small town near his farm. A waitress comes to refill his soda, and asks if he is running for something. Smith nods, and mentions the Senate. She asks: Is it the state one or the “big one”? The U.S. Senate, he replies quietly.
An Energy Deficit?
Smith’s folksy appeal and successful business experience make him an attractive candidate in many parts of this manufacturing-based battleground state, but observers say he needs to turn up the heat to make this a competitive race.
“Honestly, they’ve got to light the fire under the candidate,” says John Brabender, a longtime Republican strategist who worked on Rick Santorum’s losing 2006 Senate campaign against Casey as well as his presidential campaign. (Brabender also worked for Smith’s primary opponent, Tom Welch). “What hasn’t happened yet is people aren’t looking at and talking about that race.” Smith’s challenge, he asserts, “is that he needs to move this race into place because it’s the type of race where you can’t do that in the final weeks. The next four to five weeks may just be the most critical for Tom Smith that there are.”
Smith will likely have the money to do it. Corbett and the state GOP backed Welch, his primary opponent, but Smith spent $5 million of his own fortune on the race and hit the airwaves with ads to defeat Welch and clinch the nomination in April. Smith originally figured he would put enough money into the pot to get his run off the ground and build an organization. Last quarter, he donated $1.5 million to his campaign. He also raised $702,000 and has $2.9 million in cash. He won’t say how much of his own fortune he is willing to spend, but says “the well is not dry.” Casey raised $1.9 million last quarter and has $6.2 million in cash.
Brabender says Smith needs to not only write big checks to move the race, but to also create a more dramatic and dynamic race. “I do think the challenge for Smith is . . . to find a little more passion, and take it right to Casey.”
The campaign plans to hit the airwaves soon, and has hinted that ads will both introduce Smith to voters and show a contrast with Casey. On Wednesday, the challenger launched a website in an effort to paint Casey as an ineffective senator for not passing any legislation while in the upper chamber, though he either sponsored or co-sponsored a couple hundred bills. The campaign also released a Web video calling Casey “Senator Zero.”
Casey’s team said Smith doesn’t understand the legislative process. “Due to compromise and negotiation, bills and amendments are added to other bills, or a different version of the bill is the one that is signed into law,” spokesman Larry Smar said in a statement. “Bob Casey has a record of working with Republicans and Democrats to find commonsense solutions to problems. In the past year alone he passed a tax cut for middle-class families and legislation to help workers who lost their jobs due to unfair foreign trade.”
Smith’s strategy in Pennsylvania rests on tying Casey to President Obama, whose second term in the White House likely hinges on winning the state. Obama is currently leading Romney here, 46 percent to 39 percent, according to the Quinnipiac poll, but his approval rating is underwater, 49 percent to 45 percent. Democrats outnumber Republicans here in voter registration by a little more than 1 million. Like most Republicans in congressional races, Smith says he will focus on Casey’s support for the health care reform law, the stimulus plan and the auto rescue. Like Romney, Smith believes failing auto companies should have taken the bankruptcy route.
“With all due respect to Sen. Bob Casey, I think Pennsylvanians want us to grow the economy so they can have jobs,” Smith says. “With all due respect to Sen. Casey, he’s never done that. Maybe he doesn’t know how to do it. Whereas I’ve been doing that for a while.”
Digging Into the Business World
After his father died, Smith took over the family farm, which produces grain and corn, instead of going to college. He also managed the family’s small school bus company. After marrying wife Saundy, he went to work in the mines near his home. In 1989, Smith mortgaged his house to purchase mining permits, and worked out a rent-to-own deal with an equipment provider. Over the course of two decades, he opened and operated over 20 mines, which generated 100,000 tons of coal per month among them.
Smith sold the last of his mines two years ago and left the business. But his experience there informs how he would govern. If he was going to borrow millions of dollars to pay for equipment, he had to first figure out how to finance it over a period of time, he says, standing next to a heap of coal and soot-covered conveyer belts at the first mine he opened, a couple miles from his farm. He recalls, by name, some of the men he employed there. Market conditions caused the current owner to temporarily close this deep mine, Smith says.
In his Senate campaign, Smith will argue that Environmental Protection Agency regulations will cause other mines to close and leave workers without jobs. He hit Casey recently for opposing a GOP measure in the Senate that would weaken an EPA law regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. (One such plant is visible from Smith’s driveway.) The Obama administration, he believes, has waged a “war on coal” through these types of regulations. Coal powers roughly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s energy.
Smith then drives his Ford F-250 to a patch of land where several rows of corn now grow. This used to be a mine, he says, and explains how he and his crew filled it back in over the course of a few months.
Smith is clearly more familiar with mining and farming than he is politics. At Tina’s Lodge, he comes and goes without introducing himself to the diners there. Asked whether he has talked with Santorum, who lost to Casey by 18 points in 2006, Smith says he ought to set up a meeting. RCP tells him he is scheduled to appear with Santorum at the opening of a Romney campaign office in Greensburg the following day. Oh, he says, I didn’t know that.
At that opening, Santorum encouraged the crowd to support Smith, whom he called “a good man.” After his speech, Santorum told RCP that Casey is a “rubber stamp” for the Obama administration, a term Casey once used to define Santorum for voting with President George W. Bush during his time in the Senate. “Casey, who said he was going to be a moderate Democrat, is equally as radical as Barack Obama, and it’s pretty sad,” Santorum said.
While reports indicate Casey has voted with his party 95 percent of the time, observers note his calm and quiet demeanor and describe him as low key. Both Casey and Smith are “two candidates who clearly need more caffeine in their lives,” says Brabender. In Casey’s defense, Smar says the senator “has strong record of fighting for Pennsylvania jobs and middle-class families, but he doesn’t have Tom Smith’s personal coal fortune or Smith’s backing from national Tea Party groups.”
Smith has also been working with the Romney campaign. He attended two fundraisers with Tagg Romney in Lancaster last week, and appeared with the presidential nominee at a spirited rally in Irwin, a working-class town outside Pittsburgh.
“Our Republican ticket, led by Governor Romney, will fight to restore our freedoms, create jobs and get our economy back on track,” Smith told the crowd before Romney spoke. “Like me, Governor Romney comes from the private sector. . . . We know how to create jobs. So we know what’s at stake this November.”
But observers say Romney’s coattails might not be long enough to carry Smith. “There’s a possibility people [will] split the ticket,” Ron Rometo, a Westmoreland County district chair, said after the Santorum-Smith event for Romney in Greensburg. “Certainly there are a lot more anti-Obama people out there than there are anti-Casey. . . . Those who follow things like this know how important it is to take the Senate.”
Smith hopes to make that case over the summer and into the fall. As for whether he expects to go to Washington in January, he answers simply: “We won’t know until we try. And we will try.”
Land That He Loves
Back at the farm, Smith drives to the top of one of the many rolling, manicured fields and parks. This is his favorite spot, he says, because you can see most of the spread from the center of it.
Even after six decades here, he still marvels at the farm’s beauty and speaks enthusiastically about mowing wheat. How could he leave this place? “I’m giving up something I love very much for something I love even more — and that’s the future of my country, future generations.”