Casey Adjusts To Shifting Political Map, Math

June 9, 2018 GMT

If you think U.S. Sen. Bob Casey will cruise to re-election in November, you should think again. He expects a tough election and so should his fans. “A tough race against a tough opponent in a very difficult state,” as Casey described it a couple of weeks ago. In U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the Scranton Democrat faces a Republican candidate unlike either man he ran against to win his two Senate terms. Barletta, a controversial former Hazleton mayor, comes off as more likeable than former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Casey’s 2006 opponent, or the late coal-mine operator Tom Smith, his 2012 opponent. Santorum struck many people as just too rigid. Smith never really connected with voters. Barletta connects, doesn’t sound rigid except on immigration, and knows how to campaign. You can tell Casey has concerns. Using his big campaign money advantage, he began advertising a few weeks ago in the northeast and southwest despite two polls that had him way ahead of Barletta — Franklin & Marshall College by 18 percentage points, Muhlenberg College, 16 points. His critics say this shows Casey’s support a mile wide and an inch deep. But we’re still talking about Bob Casey, 5-0 in statewide races against Republicans. He’s unbeatable until you beat him. If Casey looks vulnerable anywhere, start with western Pennsylvania. In 2006, he won the overall vote in the eight southwest counties with 58.2 percent of the vote, not including Allegheny County, which he won with 64.9 percent. Santorum lived in Allegheny County and grew up nearby in a northwest county, Butler, but Casey clobbered him on his home turf. and won the northwest counties with 53.1 percent. Casey won 58.7 percent of the vote statewide, beating Santorum by 17.4 points. In 2012, Casey beat Smith by 9.1 points, and lost the southwest by 8.6 points and northwest by 12.9 points. Smith lived in Armstrong County, suburban Pittsburgh, so that helped him, but remember Casey wiped the floor with Santorum out west. Besides that, Casey’s Allegheny County percentage dropped to 59.3 percent. Worse for Casey, his percentages dropped in every region but Philadelphia, and his vote total went down in the southwest, even though his vote totals rose in every other region because of the presidential election year. The Democrats have major problems in the west, as Casey pointed out after the 2008 presidential election, and as Donald Trump proved in 2016. Casey beat Smith partly because President Barack Obama brought out a lot of voters who don’t normally vote. In Philadelphia, Casey’s vote grew from 84 percent in 2006 to 86.4 percent in 2012. That looks like a small bump, but one out of every eight voters lived in Philadelphia in 2012. He had 207,000 more votes there than in 2006. In the four counties surrounding Philadelphia, where Democrats have made major gains in the last 20 years, Casey had 153,000 more votes than in 2006. Add Philly and the southeast to his 86,000 more northeast votes than 2006, and you get about 446,000, almost all of his 512,000-vote victory margin over Smith. In 2016. Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes, but he beat Hillary Clinton in the southwest by 31 points and northwest by 30 points, both margins far larger than the ones by which Casey defeated Santorum. Trump also won the northeast by 8 points. You can see why Casey has started advertising in the southwest and northeast. He doesn’t want what happened to Clinton to happen to him. He has to shore up his bases. With Barletta in the race, Casey likely will lose Luzerne County, which has the second-most voters in the northeast (Lehigh is first). What has clarified over the last decade is Casey’s (and Democrats’) greater reliance on winning the east, especially the southeast and Philadelphia. In 2006, Casey won every region except the center of the state. In 2012, he won only Allegheny County, Philadelphia, the northeast and the southeast. This certainly has contributed to a flexibility on issues that he never showed before. In 2002, when he ran against Ed Rendell for governor, Casey saw no need for more gun control as Rendell proposed letting qualified people buy one gun a month. Since he beat Smith, multiple school shootings convinced Casey to change his mind. He would never favor banning gun ownership, but he favors more gun control, which squares with the way southeast voters think. If Trump grows more popular in Pennsylvania — as he has lately nationally — this race will get really interesting because Trump and Barletta are so closely aligned. If this all sounds pretty doom and gloom for Casey, let’s not forget Barletta’s problems. He still has only about an eighth of the campaign money left that Casey has and he’s nowhere near as well-known. Barletta thinks outside funding groups will fill the gap, but that’s no certainty. Barletta has to win the west big, but in the May 15 Republican primary he couldn’t beat an underfunded state Rep. Jim Christiana in most of the western counties. You can say, “Well, yeah Christiana’s from the southwest,” but the state Republican Party endorsed Barletta. In the east, Barletta might win the northeast, but he won’t blow out Casey there and he probably will struggle in the southeast. A third of state voters live in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties. Plus, Casey won’t do as badly in the west as Clinton. “If Casey is smart, he will cherry-pick a few populist issues or constituent stories to tell around the state and go negative only when necessary,” Republican strategist Vince Galko told us a couple weeks back. “Barletta will never have as much money as Casey but he doesn’t need that much. Lou needs enough resources to get his name ID up around the state and land a few punches on Bobby at the same time. That’s easier said than done, but I would expect this race to tighten as we head into the fall.” Casey’s first two ads focus on constituent stories — one about helping coal miners, another about helping grandparents take care of the kids of opioid-addicted parents. Pennsylvania’s 2018 U.S. Senate race remains Casey’s to lose, but it can happen. BORYS KRAWCZENIUK, The Times-Tribune politics reporter, writes Random Notes.