The Magazine

Will Casey Strike Out?

Don't count out Rick Santorum.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By SALENA ZITO
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Pittsburgh

THIS YEAR, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is host to perhaps the most expensive, combative, and rigorously contested U.S. Senate race. Seeking a third term, Republican senator Rick Santorum faces a strong challenge from state treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who sports a political brand name--his father was a popular two-term governor, as well as a state auditor general.

Casey, like his father, holds unconventional positions--for a Demo crat--on gun control (he's against it) and abortion (he says he's against it, too). At the moment, Casey's ahead: The most recent Quinnipiac survey has Casey ahead by 18 points, and a recent "Strategic Vision" poll gives Casey a 10-point lead.

The fact is, though, that Bob Casey Jr.'s potential weaknesses--and Santorum's political strengths--make this race far from over.

Casey's been here before. In 2002, eight weeks before the Democratic gubernatorial primary, he had a 26-point lead over current governor Ed Rendell. But, as soon as Casey had to stake out ideological ground and say where he stood on the issues, that lead evaporated. A similar dynamic can be seen in this year's Senate race. So far, Casey has been afraid to take stands. On national affairs, says Dan Ronayne, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Commmittee, "When Casey does speak to issues, it is in platitudes based off Democrat talking points." As Ronayne tells it, while Casey has said he opposes introducing personal savings accounts into Social Security, he hasn't yet said how he would handle the coming entitlement crisis. And on tax cuts, Ronayne goes on, Casey "says he would vote to repeal the [Bush cuts] for the top one percent, but would he have voted against the bills as presented to the senators in 2001 and 2003?" (The Casey campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

"After 10 years in public office, we still don't hear from Bob Casey on where he stands," says Kent Gates, a senior strategist for Brabender Cox, a media firm working with the Santorum campaign. "He does not want people to know that he is socially conservative in southeastern Pennsylvania, and he does not want voters in western Pennsylvania to know that he is a big spending liberal."

Look at how Casey handled the debate over President Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Alito's nomination was not only important on a national scale--it also had a lot to do with the politics of Pennsylvania, as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, on which Alito sat prior to becoming an associate justice, is based in Philadelphia. But, for nearly two months, Casey avoided saying where he stood on Alito.

In the end, Gov. Rendell provided Casey cover by saying he supported Alito, which prompted Casey to release this statement: "I do not agree with everything that Judge Samuel Alito has done or said . . . however, I agree with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Washington Post editorial boards that the arguments against Judge Alito do not rise to the level that would require a vote denying him a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court." The issue seemed resolved.

But not really. You see, Rendell's support for Alito made political sense. The governor's wife, Midge, served on the same circuit court as Alito, and the couple has great respect for the jurist. Plus, how Rendell felt about Alito has no bearing on him or his reelection campaign. (He's currently trouncing Republican challenger Lynn Swann in the polls.) Casey, on the other hand, finds himself in a pickle. His more conservative stances on social issues might attract moderates, but they might also alienate liberals. His solution? Say nothing, and hope incumbent-fatigue does the job for him.

It won't work. Charlie Gerow, a Republican political strategist and the CEO of Harrisburg-based Quantum Communications, likes Bob Casey--as the state treasurer. He supported Casey for that position: "I think that Bob Casey is an outstanding public servant and a good man," he says. "He is a good state treasurer and should remain a good state treasurer."

That's because, Gerow says, Santorum will win in November: "Eventually, Bobby Casey comes out of hiding and has to confront him."

When it comes to campaigning, the candidate Casey must eventually confront is no slouch. "Santorum is great on the stump," says Joseph Sabino Mistick, a retired Democratic operative who teaches at Duquesne Law School. "Santorum can start a thousand little fires by constantly raising Casey's faults," Sabino Mistick continues. "He can paint him a conservative, a liberal . . . a man whose career is running for office."

"Rick has always run from behind," adds the Republican consultant Gerow. "He knows how to run a tough race." The media strategist Gates agrees: "Rick Santorum is the best candidate in modern Pennsylvania politics. He is aggressive, tough, and hard-working."