For months, Pennsylvania was considered a cakewalk for Democrats, with Sen. Bob Casey easily cruising to reelection and its 20 electoral votes in the bag for President Barack Obama.
But enter Republican Tom Smith and his personal fortune, and suddenly the Keystone State has the potential of upending the national political landscape. Buoyed by a tightening presidential race here, Smith — a no-name GOP Senate candidate and self-funding multimillionaire — has suddenly made Republicans bullish about picking off the Keystone State to make Mitch McConnell majority leader and Mitt Romney more competitive here.
“He wasn’t on any endangered list,” Rep. Bob Brady, the Democratic congressman from the Philadelphia area, said of Casey. “But he is now.”
What’s happening in Pennsylvania reflects a national trend: Romney has risen in the polls following his first debate performance, giving him new opportunities in states seen as prime Democratic terrain. And a rapidly shifting Senate landscape has prompted GOP leaders to reassess Democratic-leaning states like Connecticut and Pennsylvania, putting the Northeast suddenly at the heart of the GOP’s dwindling hopes of winning a Senate majority.
“It worries me,” said Mary Anne Kinchen, a 61-year-old Democratic volunteer from Easton, Pa. “I wake up at night.”
To be sure, both Casey and Obama are still widely considered the odds-on favorites to win here, given there are 1 million more registered Democratic voters than GOP voters, and many expect Casey’s fresh advertising assault slamming his opponent as a radical tea party candidate to stem Smith’s gain at the polls. Moreover, the Obama team and the powerful union presence here are investing heavily in a turnout operation they believe will swamp the Romney machine, bringing out their voters in Democratic strongholds like Allentown and major urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Romney officials are also unsure whether the bump in the polls means they should invest time and money here — or simply dabble in the state and hope the national tide will put Pennsylvania back on the swing state map.
But even if the conventional wisdom is that Pennsylvania still leans Democrat on the presidential and Senate map, the state was important enough for vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan to stump here Saturday, making a pit stop at an airport hangar to 800 cheering supporters brandishing signs bearing the words, “Pennsylvania believes.”
Polls have shown there’s a reason for Republicans to believe they have some hope here. Two public polls in the past 10 days have suggested that Smith’s ad campaign — where he’s dubbed Casey as an “invisible senator” — has erased the Democrat’s double-digit lead, dropping his lead down to single digits, with an Allentown Morning Call poll even putting the Democrat’s advantage at 2 points. According to a Quinnipiac poll, Romney has sliced Obama’s 12-point lead down to 4, while a GOP poll released Friday even put Romney ahead by 4 points here, and Smith up by 2.
On top of that, Smith pulled off a rarity for a challenger against an incumbent senator, narrowly outraising Casey in the last quarter by pulling in $1.6 million from private donations. The Republican has spent $5 million more than Casey through the end of last month. Already, Smith — a first-time statewide candidate who has made tens of millions in the coal-mining business — has spent a staggering $17 million of his own money, and he suggested in an interview that he was prepared to dump even more of his own cash if that’s what it takes to win.
“There’s another person who is OK doing that, and her name is Mrs. Smith,” Smith told POLITICO, sitting comfortably in the leather-bound seats in his big blue campaign bus. “She and I both believe that for future generations — our children and their children — is well worth this effort. … We will have sufficient funds to finish this campaign off.”
This has all put Casey in a tough position. Just as Casey’s team is trying to reassure unnerved Democrats that all his fine with his bid — releasing an internal poll Friday that showed him up 13 points — the senator also wants to instill a sense of urgency since he could seal the deal with an influx of outside cash and from Obama campaign appearances. Casey, who finished September with $5.2 million in cash, has spent about $2.4 million in the first two weeks of the month, sources say, meaning Democrats in Washington may ultimately have to come to aid the senator if the race continues to remain tight.
“It’s not easy to get the resources you need in this kind of a year,” Casey conceded after a campaign stop in Allentown, Pa. “It’s unusual situation to have an incumbent outspent at all, but also to have an incumbent outspent by millions.”
Still, Casey’s team believes Smith’s staunch conservative positions, namely on Medicare and Social Security, will help tilt undecided voters in the Democrat’s direction. Smith said in the interview he’d risk seeing the country go into default rather than vote to increase the national debt ceiling. He refuses to consider a dime of new taxes in order to control the mounting debt. He’s praised Ryan for proposing his controversial Medicare overhaul, as well as one further to the right drafted by tea party Sen. Rand Paul. He’d like to see private accounts in Social Security for future beneficiaries. And he launched a tea party chapter in western Pennsylvania.
“He’s a pretty conservative guy,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), adding that those positions will play well in a state that showed its right-leaning views in the GOP electoral landslide here in 2010. “Pennsylvania is not the blue state that some people think it is.”
Casey’s message that Smith is too conservative for Pennsylvania has only dominated the airwaves in recent weeks because the Democrat’s team believed it couldn’t risk using up its resources early in the race. So he’s had to conserve resources until the final weeks of the campaign, sitting back and watching his wealthy GOP opponent pummel the airwaves with his seemingly limitless supply of cash. To Smith’s benefit, the airwaves have been free of the clutter of presidential advertising since both Romney and Obama have avoided spending on TV here. And that has all helped Smith tighten the race.
“Would it have been better for Bob if the president and Mitt Romney had been here?” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in an interview. “Yeah, it would have been better because there would have been a bigger turnout.”
Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat whose late father was a popular two-term Pennsylvania governor, said it’s not unusual for races in the state to end up as nail-biters.
“This is a much more of a 52-48 kind of state,” said Casey, though he defeated then-GOP Sen. Rick Santorum by 17 points six years ago.
All this has prompted some anxiety among Democrats here.
“Step it up,” was one message Democratic officials delivered to Casey recently, according to Michael Fleck, a Democratic operative in Allentown.
Rendell, who defeated Casey in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, said he believes the polls showing the race at single digits are “badly off,” though he acknowledged it was a “risk” to wait to spend money against a deep-pocketed self-funder.
Rendell told POLITICO the senator’s ad criticizing Smith as a tea party radical has “probably run its course,” and he added that Casey “probably should have started putting some positives” up earlier on the airwaves boasting about his record.
“I think you’ll see a lot of activity in the last 17 days,” Rendell said. “I’ll be stunned if Bob didn’t win by double digits.”
Mike Schlossberg, a Democratic candidate for the state House, said, “I think there are two ways to run: Hard or unopposed.” Asked if Casey was running hard, Schlossberg said: “Now he is.”
The 52-year-old Casey rejects critics who say he’s been taking the race for granted: “Have some of the folks live my schedule for a couple days.”
Smith said he is modeling his campaign after Republican Ron Johnson, who never before held elected office and came out of nowhere in 2010 to pull off a Wisconsin stunner when he trounced liberal icon Russ Feingold. In fact, upon hearing Johnson being interviewed on the radio while farming oats on his 400-acre estate in western Pennsylvania earlier this year, Smith was inspired to mount an improbable bid that propelled him to the GOP nomination over four rivals in April.
“If you would have told me 14 months ago that I would be sitting here in this bus talking to you about being the Republican candidate here in Pennsylvania, I would have simply said, ‘Right,’” said Smith, who turned 65 on Saturday, and had previously been a registered Democrat since 1968, much like many conservative Reagan Democrats.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Smith helped run his family farm and bus business at the age of 19 before he entered the coal-mining industry. He eventually opened up two coal companies that were producing about 100,000 tons of coal a month, making his company one of the biggest coal producers in the state, before selling off the business in 2010. His net worth has been estimated between $60 million-$70 million, but Smith wouldn’t say when asked if that figure was accurate.
“That’s a very complicated question,” he said, citing his holdings in real estate and lands whose values vary in worth.
For Democrats, the strategy in the final two weeks of the campaign is simple: Instill fear into their supporters about what Smith would do if he were to win.
Appearing beside Casey in front of a few dozen supporters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers post in Allentown, the city’s Democratic mayor, Ed Pawlowski, ridiculed Smith’s Medicare and Social Security positions as “absolutely insane.”
“We have a clear choice,” Pawlowski said. “We’re up against the insanity that’s being pushed out there — or a clear choice to make sure we bring sanity back to government.”
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