Sen. Bob Casey’s Lead Over Republican Opponent Tom Smith Drops As Election Nears

Harrisburg Patriot-News

True to form, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. remains understated entering the final three weeks of his re-election campaign.

Casey shrugs off the “Silent Bob” label often used by Pennsylvania Republicans who accuse him of being a phantom political presence.

Rather than be peeved by a New York Times reporter’s description of him last year as a politician whose excitement is “most often registered by some extra eyebrow activity,” the Scranton Democrat humbly incorporated the self-deprecating depiction into his stump speech at a Wednesday appearance in Carlisle.

But when he’s asked about the “Senator Zero” tag Republican challenger Tom Smith has slighted him with in scores of television commercials across the state, Casey’s staid repose simmers to a lukewarm boil.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at my record in terms of getting results for people,” Casey shot back when asked about the label following last week’s appearance at a Cumberland County Democratic Party dinner at Dickinson College.

He then rattled off a number of legislative accomplishments to counter Smith’s argument that he has not passed a single bill in his first term.

Casey cited his leadership role in the fight for the payroll tax cut, trade adjustment assistance, and for provisions to aid state diary farmers with their costs of production.

He also trumpets his role in championing the inclusion of pregnant women’s assistance in President Barack Obama’s controversial Affordable Care Act, and in requiring defense contractors to provide safe electrical wiring in facilities used by military personnel.

“So I think on a whole host of fronts I get results,” he added. “I think people know that and we’ll see what they say on Election Day.”

But despite stout name recognition and the intimidating power of incumbency, the heir to Pennsylvania’s most recent political dynasty has watched his poll lead over Smith dwindle. He still maintains an advantage, but it’s narrowed considerably.

In June, he held his biggest lead, a 21-point advantage, which has dropped to an average of 6.3 points on the poll aggregation last week.

The drop for Casey has been so precipitous that The Washington Post and widely respected Cook Political Report has shifted the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race from solidly and likely Democrat to leaning Democrat.

That’s drawn indifferent state Republicans to rally to Smith.

“What’s transpired is that Tom Smith has made a commitment to getting his message out,” said Mike Barley, executive director of the Pennsylvania GOP. “He’s been able to tell Bob Casey’s story, which is that he’s done nothing in Washington except vote with the president 95 percent of the time. And at the same time he’s told his story.”

Larry Smar, Casey’s campaign manager, dismissed recent Republican bullishness about Smith’s chances as deceptive bluster.

“The Smith campaign and the GOP has been in overdrive trying to spin some momentum for Tom Smith,” Smar said. “In the last week or so they’ve released 3-4 Republican polls to try and show that the race is tight, but if you look at independent polls, the race is around 10 points.”

Two of the most recent independent polls, from The Philadelphia Inquirer and Siena College, show Casey leading by 10 and 9 points respectively. But a Rasmussen poll from last week showed Casey’s lead down to 4 percentage points. 

Smith self-finances ad blitz

The turn toward Smith has come despite him delivering a well-meaning but oafish depiction of his no-exceptions anti-abortion stance in August.

In a very personal anecdote of his daughter becoming pregnant outside of marriage that Smith shared with reporters, he said out-of-wedlock pregnancy was “similar” to rape from “a father’s position.”

The remark drew condemnation, even from some Republicans. But it never captured national media attention.

A retired Armstrong County coal executive, Smith has plunged into his personal fortune to the tune of $6.5 million. He has self-funded a withering television blitz branding Casey as “Senator Zero.”

A former Democrat and Plumcreek Township supervisor, Smith has now emerged as a tea party favorite. And he has also slowly earned the grudging respect of establishment commonwealth GOP power brokers.

Though a political unknown and party outsider, Smith won the Republican primary against Steve Welch, a candidate endorsed by Gov. Tom Corbett and the state GOP.

Smith’s primary victory, his willingness to spend his own cash, and his uptick in the polls has drawn the public support of Corbett, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and even former Gov. Tom Ridge, a moderate Republican.

Smith’s sudden and unexpected ascent has reportedly piqued the curiosity of national Republican donors with deep pockets searching to finance any viable candidate that can help return the U.S. Senate to GOP control.

“There’s a real chance in the next couple of weeks that a lot of attention could descend on Pennsylvania for the presidential and the U.S. Senate races,” said Barley, adding that the tightened polls have unnerved Casey. “I think they’re shocked and scrambling now, and I don’t think he was prepared for this kind of challenge from a guy that was little-known.” 

Casey works to raise cash

Those in Casey’s inner circle say he was always ready.

“The good news is that from the outset Sen. Casey has been running scared and that’s the only way to run,” said Thomas Leonard, a Philadelphia power lawyer and former Casey campaign treasurer.

“If you run hard, you expect your opponent to mount a serious campaign, and Bob’s done that,” Leonard added. “The thing he’s got going for him now is the more people learn about Tom Smith, the more questions they have about his qualifications.”

However, as Smith has been emboldened by his gain in the poll and mainstream party backing, Casey has been hard to find on the campaign trail.

Asked about his limited stumping presence just weeks from the election, he pointed to Smith’s massive television ad buys attacking him.

“I got two things I’ve got to do,” Casey said. “One is that I’ve got to do my job, and I’ve been doing that well. But we also have to raise money, and when you’re running against someone who’s already put in, I don’t know what the number is now, probably $7 million since August 1, you’ve got to try and compete with that. That’s a difficult challenge. I can’t just write a check. I’ve got to get the resources to be able to compete.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Peter Buttenwieser, chairman of Casey’s campaign finances.

“I don’t think he’s campaigning in a highly intensive way, but I think he’s getting around and making sure people get to see him,” said Buttenwieser, an heir to the Lehman brokerage fortune and influential Democratic Party fundraiser.

“My sense is that every time we have seen Tom Smith go up on television we have, with relative comfort, matched his buy sort of point-for-point,” he added.

“We spent 18-24 months precisely preparing to take on a person that was self-funder. We have money in the budget to match Smith all the way through the next 3-4 weeks. So it’s a concern, but it’s not a panicked concern at all.”

Casey’s emphasis on fundraising rather than old-fashioned hand-shaking and baby-kissing could be a result of the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, said Dan Hartman, a state Democratic campaign consultant. The ruling allowed largely unfettered funds into political campaigns.

“It actually removes a lot of political figures from the [campaign] process,” Hartman said. “Let’s face it, they’ve got to make more trips to Florida, Oregon, New York and Illinois to raise money to combat it because we’re never going to be able to match the right dollar-for-dollar.”

But a Smith campaign spokeswoman said Casey has preferred to rake in contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest groups on the left, instead of commune with the voters of the state.

“He’s avoiding voters just like he is avoiding his record — a record of zero accomplishment and zero plan to grow the economy and create jobs,” said Smith spokeswoman Megan Piwowar. 

Will they debate?

Terry Madonna, a prominent state pollster and Franklin & Marshall College professor, said Casey has never immersed himself in retail politics.

“That’s basically been Casey’s style,” Madonna said. “He’ll go and do a lot of events, but I don’t think he feels compelled to do five events a day.”

Casey’s’ campaign reserve may be his version of a Rose Garden strategy, said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a Lasalle University political science professor and Democratic National Committee member.

“If he’s out campaigning he’s accused of not doing anything in Congress,” Balchunis said. “It’s almost like he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.”

Meanwhile, as other senate races across the country have been sparked with fiery debates, the Casey and Smith campaigns have been unable to agree to terms for at least one debate before Nov. 6.

Despite media speculation that neither candidate wants to open himself up to the potential damage a debate can bring, Casey supporters say the senator wants to tussle with Smith, and his staff is working to make that happen.

Leonard, the former Casey campaign treasurer now fundraising for the state party and Keystone Victory Fund Super PAC, threw down a provocative debate gauntlet to Smith.

“I don’t think Bob has anything to fear with a debate,” he said. “But I think the opposite is true with Mr. Smith.”

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