Plumcreek Township, Pa.
Last year, Tom Smith looked at the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania with dismay. The incumbent, first-term Democrat Bob Casey Jr., seemed vulnerable. The son of a well-liked, pro-life former Democratic governor, Casey had served in the Senate for six undistinguished and forgettable years. His vote for Obama-care, with its mandates and subsidies for abortion, was a blemish on his supposedly pro-life record. With a good message and enough money, a solid Republican candidate might knock off Casey by courting Reagan Democrats across the state. It had been done two years before, when conservative Republican Pat Toomey defeated liberal Democrat Joe Sestak. But Smith saw the opportunity slipping away.
“I was hoping that they had a Pat Toomey-type person warmed up in the bullpen ready to come in,” Smith tells me. “But that never happened.”
So Smith says he felt an obligation to give Casey a real challenge. “I was not about to concede that seat to Senator Bob Casey,” he says.
And concede he hasn’t. In the last month, Smith has moved within single digits of Casey, who has been running a minimal campaign. Casey held his first rally in weeks in Philadelphia on October 18, and only recently has he started advertising on TV there. Meanwhile, the latest Rasmussen poll shows Smith just one point behind Casey.
“I think Tom Smith has turned into a terrific candidate,” says Toomey. “I think the race is dead even.”
Smith says he’s modeled his campaign on that of Republican senator Ron Johnson, the businessman and entrepreneur from Wisconsin who shocked the political world in 2010 by toppling incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold. Johnson, for his part, says he sees a lot of the same dynamics in Smith’s race in Pennsylvania.
“I think people like Tom Smith are exactly what we need in Washington,” Johnson says. “He isn’t doing this because he wants to be a career politician.”
If Western Pennsylvania were its own state, Smith would likely be its next senator. But Democratic-heavy Philadelphia always makes Pennsylvania an uphill struggle for conservatives. Smith’s challenge is to pull away the swing voters in the Philadelphia suburbs who might be displeased with Obama and Casey. Smith has spent a significant amount of his own money—over $16.5 million, his campaign says—on the race, mostly on television ads. For several months, he was running the only political advertisements on TV in Philadelphia.
The question Smith first had to answer, he says, was, “Who’s Tom Smith?” An ad from May introduced him as a “conservative Republican” businessman and family man. “In the Senate, I’ll fight to repeal Obama-care, cut spending, and I’ll never vote to raise the debt ceiling,” Smith says over images of him in a boardroom and talking with voters in a coffee shop. The final shot shows Smith standing with his wife, daughters, and numerous grandchildren.
Another features a voiceover inviting viewers to “meet Tom Smith.” “His story is the American dream,” the narrator says. “At 40, he was a union coal miner with big dreams. So he mortgaged his family farm to start his own energy company.” The ad shows a photograph of a younger Smith wearing a hard hat and covered in black soot, crouching in a coal mine. It’s the kind of ad meant to persuade viewers that this conservative businessman is “one of them.”
For nearly his entire life, Smith was “one of them,” at least politically. A registered Democrat until shortly before he ran for Senate, he’s a first-time candidate. In fact, Smith has never lived outside the two square miles of property he owns in this rural township an hour northeast of Pittsburgh.
On the face of a hill overlooking acres of corn and wheat sits Smith’s home, a modern ranch-style farmhouse. The driveway curves into a large parking lot, which is already half full with cars when I arrive early one morning. Attached to the house is a state-of-the-art gymnasium with a basketball court, a running track, a batting cage, and a kitchen. Smith built the gym when his oldest daughters were playing high school volleyball, and now, the building is open every day of the week for use by the community. The “Smith Complex”—that’s how the signs on Smith Road directing you there read—is used for youth basketball and volleyball games, school dances, and even a neighbor family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
At 65, Smith may now be the local patrician, but he’s come a long way. The fourth of five children, he began working on his family’s dairy farm at a young age. When Smith was 20, his father died, leaving the farm and a newly acquired school bus company in the hands of his mother. Unlike his older siblings, who had gone to college, Smith stayed home, running both the farm and the bus company until his younger brother was old enough to take over the latter.
Smith continued to farm but also started working for some of the area’s coal mines, “running equipment.” He convinced his wife, Saundy, that they should mortgage their house so he could purchase his own mine. “Mrs. Smith helped me build this,” he says.
One mine became three mines, and soon Smith was one of the largest independent coal mine owners in the business. He became a multimillionaire as he purchased more real estate and started a car wash (pronounced “car warsh”) business. He also began buying more farmland around the old Smith homestead, where corn and wheat have supplanted the dairy cows. In his black Ford pickup, we drive past newly sowed rows of wheat that he says he planted himself.
“This farming, Mike, once you get it in your blood, you’re stuck. You can’t get it out,” he says.
We pass the small Lutheran church on the edge of his property where Smith was baptized and where he’s still an active member. We also spot the farmhouse his grandparents owned and where Smith’s father was born. There are now at least five generations of his family who have lived on this land. He has seven children, including four adopted, and nine grandchildren, including a newborn. I ask him about his background. How long have Smiths lived in this township? Where did they come from?
Smith is briefly silent as we drive up another green hill. “I thought about checking that out, but I never seemed to take the time to do it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve always been a little busy.”
A few miles away from the farm, we visit the mines that kept Smith so busy these last three decades. He sold his mines two years ago, but we drive down into the deep mine as if he still owns the place. Smith may be new to politics, but he’s an expert on coal mining. I ask him to explain what we’re looking at.
“That’s the coal seam,” Smith says, pointing to the black layer cropping out of the ground underneath several feet of sandstone. “Upper Freeport, it’s about 36 inches thick. At the end seam, it’s probably about 12.6 BTU, 1.3 sulfur. But what we had to do here was, you know, take, pull the topsoil off, and there’s piles of topsoil saved and seeded down. Then the subsoil, and we piled it up, seeded it down. Then we remove all the dirt and rock above the coal seam. That’s what we call the overburden. It’s all stored down here and we removed all of that, then we loaded that coal out that was in this pit. Then we started underground.”
At a nearby coal refinery, Smith spots a familiar face. “Is that Mouse?” he asks as we pull up to a man whose face and hands are black with coal dust. Mouse, whose real name is Richard, is missing a few teeth. He’s eating an orange ice cream bar.
“I’d shake your hand, but they’re filthy,” Mouse says to me.
“When are we gonna have a poker night?” Smith asks Mouse.
“You’re busy all this month, probably,” Mouse replies.
“Yeah, but you guys go ahead,” Smith says. “Yeah, once this election’s over, it’d be nice to get together.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figure, after the election,” Mouse says.
Smith asks Mouse who he’s voting for.
“Obama,” Mouse answers with a sly grin. “My ass!” He breaks out in laughter.
There are plenty of Romney-Ryan and Tom Smith signs scattered throughout this part of the state, but there are just as many anti-Obama signs, all of them focused on the president’s “war on coal.” A new Smith ad features a young miner from Rockwood named Colt Bowman who says he was recently laid off as a result of Obama’s regulations on the industry. “If Bob Casey is reelected, we could lose even more jobs, but worse, we could lose our way of life,” Bowman says.
Smith says Casey doesn’t have any answers for people like Bowman, and so he hasn’t earned reelection.
“It comes down to this: What has Senator Bob Casey done as a United States senator?” Smith says. “Where’s his plan? Where’s his idea?”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.