The message was straightforward at a recent press conference for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (co-starring Mayor Michael Nutter and what the release generically billed as a “local senior”): Republican challenger and Tea Party activist Tom Smith is bent on destroying Medicare and Social Security.
Casey stood off to the side with his right hand in his pocket, his demeanor somewhere between reserved and drowsy. Frequent swallows sent his Adam’s apple bouncing. It was Oct. 18, just under three weeks before the election. And it had been a rough few weeks.
The freshman senator had been considered so unbeatable that high-profile Republicans like U.S. Reps. Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent had declined to challenge him this year, and national and even local media had ignored the race early on. As recently as August, Casey led Smith by 18 points — an even greater margin than his landslide defeat of Rick Santorum in 2006.
But recently, the bad news had been pouring in. The day before, Roll Call had recategorized the race to “leaning” Democratic from “likely,” and former Gov. Ed Rendell told a reporter that Casey had “run a non-campaign.” And that Tuesday, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Smith, a mining-company owner who has spent millions on his own campaign, trailing by just three points. Of all “potential Senate shockers,” University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato declared, “none of them would compare to a Casey loss.”
Reporters gathered at the Philly Democratic Party’s Center City headquarters on Oct. 18 debated whether this was his first campaign appearance.
“I can see why some would conclude that,” Casey concedes when asked about the criticism. “Because they’re used to campaigns that have a lot more campaign events, and a lot more speeches on the road and rallies,” says Casey. “That would be a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t be able to raise the money I need. ... I’ve had to spend 80 percent or so of my campaign time on fundraising.”
SMITH'S ADS, WHICH had dominated the airwaves for weeks, paint Casey as a do-nothing “Senator Zero.” It’s an image that dovetails with Casey’s lackluster campaign efforts.
Casey chalks it up to cash flow. “It takes weeks for me to gather the resources he’s able to put in one check,” Casey says. “When people don’t see you at campaign events, they conclude somehow that you’re doing something else. But I knew that I had to take that criticism in order to get the dollars.”
Smith has assembled a $20 million campaign fund — twice as much as Casey — including $16 million from his own fortune. But it’s not just his deep pockets: Smith also out-fundraised Casey in the third quarter. Yet Casey denies that he was taken by surprise, and says he always expected a tightening race. It was the right strategic decision, he says, to stockpile limited ad dollars for the closing weeks.
“They didn’t raise enough money,” counters West Chester University political scientist John J. Kennedy. “They really should have knocked Smith out in the late summertime.”
These complaints aren’t new. Casey exhibited similar behavior in his first senatorial bid in 2006, against Santorum. Back then, Philadelphia magazine’s Noel Weyrich worried that Casey was “such a stiff, no-talent campaigner that Santorum can’t possibly come up with enough freakishly extreme positions” to lose. Weyrich was wrong. Santorum, running for a third term, had become a national symbol of his party’s right-wing religious extremism, and Casey seemed levelheaded next to Santorum’s red-hot ideological fury. “Oprah to Sen. Rick Santorum’s blunt-talking Dr. Phil,” as the Inquirer put it. “One more prosaic, the other primal scream.”
With Santorum busy weaving plenty of rope to hang himself, Casey sat back and watched. National party leaders encouraged candidates to stick to economic issues; Santorum published the 464-page manifesto It Takes a Family, infamously criticizing women working outside the home.
Many Casey voters, according to polls, were motivated by their dislike of Santorum. One bumper sticker read: “Bob Casey: Well ... he’s not Santorum.” Casey ultimately rode a Democratic landslide that delivered the U.S. House and Senate to the party, alongside a majority of governorships and a plurality of state legislatures.
Of course, Casey had another thing going for him besides being the guy who wasn’t Rick Santorum. He was the son of legendary Gov. Bob Casey Sr., inheriting the most famous last name in Democratic state politics. Casey Jr. had been defined by his father since he was first elected auditor general in 1996. “The people of Pennsylvania will say, ‘Look: This is not a monarchy,’” Santorum erroneously predicted. The Casey “family name,” the Inquirer wrote, “carries about the same weight in Pennsylvania politics as does Kennedy in Massachusetts.”
THE NAME "CASEY" does have what detractors call baggage: specifically, a reputation for representing the Democratic Party’s shrunken anti-abortion wing. The late Gov. Casey, who explored running for president on an anti-abortion platform, signed the highly restrictive Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act into law. The measure ultimately was tested at the Supreme Court, where Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey proved a watershed setback for abortion-rights advocates nationwide. In 1992, Casey Sr. was famously barred from addressing the Democratic National Convention. And Casey Jr., whose dream job had always been in the governor’s mansion, stood to inherit his father’s testy relationship with social liberals.
The abortion issue – like Casey’s dim charisma—has been a key factor in his campaign efforts over the years. It had dogged but never defeated his father, who saw gubernatorial challenges from pro-choice Republicans William W. Scranton III and Barbara Hafer, and pro-choice Democrat Ed Rendell.
In the 2002 gubernatorial race, though, a reserved Casey Jr. couldn’t keep pace with Rendell’s second campaign, which had the future governor crisscrossing the state in a bus with a huge photograph of his face emblazoned on its side. But Casey Jr. easily won the state treasurer’s office in 2004. Casey’s name recognition and positive poll numbers convinced New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, then-chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that he was the one to beat Santorum, and Rendell talked Hafer (who had since become a Democrat) into dropping out of the primary. Women’s activists were infuriated. But the party establishment, recognizing Casey’s crossover potential, saw an opportunity.
Casey took abortion off the table in 2006, and made a populist, if sleepy, economic pitch to socially conservative and blue-collar white Democrats. And this year, he’s taken a similar path when it comes to policy.
Casey is both to his party’s left and to its right, depending on where you’re standing. He parts with President Obama and the party’s corporate-friendly leadership in opposing NAFTA-style free-trade agreements, and he acknowledges the threat of global warming while touting “clean coal” to mining voters. In 2006, he criticized Santorum’s ties to President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, but without taking a clear anti-war stance. In 2002, he attacked Rendell for his rough history with organized labor, and some called Casey “anti-business.”
The son is less outspoken than the father on social issues, including abortion. Unlike his father, he frequently calls for both sides to find “common ground” on reducing unwanted pregnancies through expanded access to contraception. He voted to confirm both Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, and supported health-care reform while criticizing Obama’s mandate that employees of religiously affiliated organizations be provided coverage for contraception. “He’s pro-life, no doubt about it,” says Franklin & Marshall political scientist G. Terry Madonna. “But for him, it doesn’t define him. It defined Santorum. It defined his father.”
The party’s socially liberal base, says Casey, gives him credit for not “taking more of an ideological approach to the job.” Many Democrats considered the party’s pro-choice reputation a liability in the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 loss. Today, the party is eager to attack the Republican “war on women.” Casey is avoiding the crossfire. His speeches focus not on abortion, but on job creation and protecting Social Security and Medicare. He notes that Smith has spoken favorably of vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan’s right-wing budget and, allegedly, an even more right-wing one introduced by Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul.
“I can’t think of one progressive who doesn’t intend to vote for him,” says Marc Stier, a long-time liberal activist in the city. Especially before the Obamacare contraception spat, he says, “most progressives had made their peace with Bob Casey as our senator.”
Meanwhile, conservative anti-abortion activists, to little political effect, call Casey “a pro-life sell-out.” He earns a paltry 20 percent approval rating from National Right to Life. Bishop Joseph Martino, who presides over the Catholic Church in the senator’s home city of Scranton, has threatened to withhold communion from Casey for “cooperating with … evil.”
Yet a Casey win still seems likely.
After drawing flak for failing to come out swinging — for a while, the only attack ad in Casey’s arsenal was the one that drew Rendell’s “non-campaign” critique: an image of a wobbling tea cup to represent Smith’s far-right Tea Party affinities — Casey has rolled out a series of more pointed ads and recovered somewhat in the polls. And at the first and only candidates’ debate, he compared favorably to Smith, who stumbled over answers and got the moderator’s name wrong. Twice. If Casey looked sleepy, Smith appeared to be holding onto the podium for dear life.
Speculation is rife that Casey will make another bid for governor — perhaps as soon as 2014, when increasingly unpopular Republican Tom Corbett faces re-election. After losing to Rendell in 2002, Casey said that “there’s no question I’ll run for governor again before I leave the planet.” But there’s no telling if pro-choice liberals would be eager to support him. Casey tells City Paper that he’s not in a hurry.
“I am very, very happy in the Senate. If I get another term, I’ll be very happy.”
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