Casey looking tough to beat, with 16 months to go
HARRISBURG, Pa., - July 10, 2011 (WPVI) -- Bob Casey may just have himself to beat next year when he seeks a second six-year term as Pennsylvania's now-senior U.S. senator.
Casey, 51, has as close to a household name as any politician in the state, thanks in part to his father, the former two-term governor of Pennsylvania. Casey is a Democrat in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans four-to-three.
And with a lengthy list of open Senate seats and potentially vulnerable incumbents spread out across the country next year, the Republican Party may have a hard time devoting enough money and resources to whomever the party nominates to challenge Casey.
For now, the GOP strategy is to try to tie Casey to President Barack Obama's economic policies, which the party calls disastrous. Obama won Pennsylvania handily in 2008 and his major priorities have gotten Casey's support.
But so far, that strategy hasn't encouraged any candidate with a high profile or millions of spare campaign dollars to step forward.
"There's no question in my mind that people are very concerned about Barack Obama. He was a steamroller four years ago," said Rob Gleason, the state's Republican Party chairman. "And the Casey name is still important in Pennsylvania."
No Democratic primary challenger has surfaced, either. Casey, who is strongly backed by labor unions, tailors his message to economic themes when asked why he deserves another term.
"I think primarily that I've put the state first, especially when it comes to the economic climate and job creation," Casey told The Associated Press.
Since his election in 2006 - he defeated second-term Sen. Rick Santorum in a strong year for Democrats - Casey has provided a reliable Democratic vote on the big issues.
For starters, he supported the bank bailouts that began under former President George W. Bush, Obama's stimulus package and health care overhaul and major changes in financial sector regulations.
He also supported an increase in the minimum wage and an expansion of federal funding for children's health insurance. He helped write bills to allow the federal government to impose sanctions on countries that manipulate their currency to gain trade advantages; create a one-year tax credit for small businesses that add employees or reverse cutbacks in salaries or hours; and impose stronger federal regulation over hydraulic fracturing, which is used widely by Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry.
But Casey is critical of Obama's efforts to seal free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. And while he supports Obama's push to broker a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan with Republicans that cuts spending and wipes out tax breaks, he also said he is worried about the deal including cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.
With the November 2012 election 16 months away, Gleason insists that Republicans will find a strong candidate and are talking to a lot of people, out of the public eye. Gleason would not identify people the party has approached, but said a member of Congress - he cited U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan, Charlie Dent and Bill Shuster as examples - would make a fine candidate, as would a businessperson.
The ability to raise money, Gleason said, will be a key factor in determining whether a candidate is viable.
A moderate Republican who wants to run also may have to consider the prospect of competition in the primary from a relatively unknown Harrisburg-area lawyer, Marc Scaringi, who is making the rounds of tea party gatherings and could attract support from conservatives.
As of July 1, Casey had $3 million in his campaign account. In the 2010 election, Republican Pat Toomey spent $16 million to beat then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat, and an unknown primary challenger to become Pennsylvania's junior U.S. senator. In addition to that money, outside groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spent over $11 million on television ads, mailings and more to boost Toomey.
But Republicans nationally had momentum last year. Democratic turnout was relatively light in the mid-term election. And Toomey still won by just 80,000 votes - or 2 percent of the nearly 4 million cast.
Next year will be very different. Obama will be on the ballot in his bid for a second term, and that is expected to bring out many more Democrats than those who voted last November. That is good news for Casey.
"He'll be very tough to beat, even if Obama is having a very hard time in Pennsylvania, which is not likely," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Obama's polling numbers in Pennsylvania are being closely watched under the theory that his popularity, or lack thereof, will help determine Casey's fate. A poll released June 15 by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed Obama leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, 47 percent to 40 percent, while 48 percent of voters approved of the job Obama is doing and the same percentage disapproved. Asked about Casey, 47 percent of those surveyed approved of the job he's doing and 26 percent disapproved.
Typically, a 50 percent approval rating or above for an incumbent is considered a key threshold for victory, and potential Republican challengers to Casey may be content to wait for a few more months to see if there's more weakness in Casey's or Obama's polling numbers, or whether the state's unemployment rate of 7.4 percent - well below the national rate - changes substantially.
Sabato said, however, there is no magic number that will guarantee Casey's victory or loss.
"There is no magic number, because each race is different, whether it's for president or Senate or governor," Sabato said. "Each race is different and the quality of competition in each race is different."
pennsylvania, sen. bob casey jr., local/state
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