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."
And he's been around for awhile. There's no question the powers of incumbency will work to Santorum's advantage. It won't be long, for example, before the senator starts talking about how he saved several of Pennsylvania's military bases--including the 911th Airlift Wing in Pittsburgh and the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks--from closure last year by the Base Realignment and Closure commission, or BRAC.
Santorum also worked closely with Rendell to protect the Willow Grove Naval Air Station from cuts--something Rendell won't soon forget. "Rick Santorum has proven that he gets the job done. Time and time again he has come through," Rendell told me. "Just look at what he did with the BRAC."
"I will eventually campaign with Casey," Rendell went on. "But, no, you won't see me attack Santorum." He added, "I work well with him and [U.S. Sen. Arlen] Specter. When it comes to Pennsylvania, Santorum delivers."
There's another way that being the incumbent helps Santorum. He can look to national Republican heavy hitters like former New York mayor and possible presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani for support. On July 11, in Pittsburgh, Giuliani attended a fundraiser and subsequent rally for Santorum held by local city police, firemen, and first responders.
"Santorum has been a great advocate of the men and women of law enforcement," Giuliani told me as he and Santorum walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which was closed for Major League Baseball's annual All-Star Game. "And he has shown great leadership in the Senate with issues that affect their daily livelihood, like border security and illegal immigration." Look for more national Republicans to flock to Santorum's side in the coming months.
Santorum holds one last trump card. In 2004, the Pennsylvania Republican party was bitterly divided between establishment types supporting veteran senator Arlen Specter and conservative re formers supporting his Republican primary challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey. Toomey, who now runs the conservative Club for Growth, lost that contest--but he seems to harbor no ill will toward Santorum, who supported Specter.
"It is way past time to get on to the business of reelecting Rick," says Toomey, who added that the conservative reform movement in Pennsylvania will be right behind him.
"Are [conservatives] angry?" Toomey asks. "Yes, but in the end, they are going to be there for him." One more reason a Casey victory is far from inevitable.
Salena Zito is an editorial columnist and political reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She worked on Sen. Santorum's 2000 reelection campaign.