In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Smith is facing an uphill battle against Democratic senator Bob Casey, the son of the beloved former governor. But in four of the five most recent polls of likely voters, Smith, a 64-year-old farmer and coal mining businessman from Western Pennsylvania, has been within single digits of Casey, including a Quinnipiac poll released last week showing him trailing the incumbent senator by just six points.
“We’ve got a real race on our hands here,” says Smith in an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Smith, a political newcomer, added that he believes voters are moving away from Casey the more they learn about his voting record. The Smith campaign has had television ads in every market in the state, including one criticizing Casey’s record in the Senate.
“Bob Casey voted to cut Medicare by 700 billion dollars to fund Obamacare,” the ad’s voiceover says. “Casey opposes a balanced budget amendment, he voted to spend 46 billion of your tax dollars on wasteful earmarks for special interests, and Casey voted for higher taxes 50 times. The truth is, its time for a change.”
“He’s devoid of leadership,” Smith says in our interview. “He just goes along with this current administration. And I think the voters of Pennsylvania want something different.”
That “something different” is the subject of Smith’s other recent TV ad, which features Smith, sleeves rolled up, speaking directly to the camera and holding a physical copy of his “Restoring the American Dream” plan.
“Here’s my plan to hold the politicians accountable,” Smith says, his voice flat and clipped. “Pass a balanced budget amendment, simplify the tax code with no giveaways to special interests, and if Congress doesn’t pass a budget, they don’t get paid. If you’re fed up with career politicians and want real reform, I’d appreciate your support.”
Smith’s bid is a difficult one, especially in a presidential election year. Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters in Pennsylvania by over 1 million, and Barack Obama beat John McCain by 10 points in 2008. In fact, a Republican presidential candidate has not won the Keystone State since 1988, although the Romney campaign may try to make a bid for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. And Casey, who defeated Republican Rick Santorum six years ago, has high name ID in no small part because of his father, Bob Casey Sr., was a popular two-term governor.
But Smith says “times are changing” in Pennsylvania. The GOP swept elections in 2010, and now Pennsylvania’s governor (Tom Corbett), junior U.S. senator (Pat Toomey), and 12 of its 19 House members are all Republicans. The party controls the state house and senate, too.
“There are a lot of Reagan-type conservative Democrats out there,” Smith says. “Their parents were Democrats, so they just did the same, but they vote their conscience.”
He should know; until two years ago, Smith himself was a registered Democrat himself. In the 1970s, he briefly served as a Democratic town supervisor, and in 2010, he was on the Armstrong County Democratic committee. But Smith says he’s been a conservative his whole life, and that he learned his values from his father, who died when Smith was 20 years old.
“I can still recall him saying to me, ‘Hard work and common sense, son, will take you a long way.’ So that’s just how I’ve lived my entire life,” Smith says.
With two older brothers in college and a younger one still in grade school, Smith stayed home after his father’s death to help run the family’s dairy farm in Armstrong County near the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh. He still farms there to this day, but in the mid 1980’s, Smith also started a small coal mining business in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. That company grew into three over the next two and a half decades, all of which he sold in 2010 as he prepared to retire.
Instead, Smith decided to run for the Senate. He won a contentious Republican primary earlier this year and was an undisputed underdog as most observers saw Casey with a clear advantage to win reelection. But Casey may be vulnerable, particularly with a record that is demonstrably more liberal than his moderate father’s. Most notably, Casey voted for Obamacare and has been nearly silent on the law’s proposed regulations on small businesses and its empowerment of the federal government to force religious employers to purchase insurance policies that cover abortions.
“Had I been the United States Senator from Pennsylvania, we would not have the Affordable Care Act, because I would not have voted for it,” Smith says. “He did, and he’s standing in the way of getting it repealed.”
Smith supports repealing Obamacare, citing business owners from across several sectors who tell him the law’s stiff regulations will kill jobs. He also supports reforming Medicare along the lines of the reforms outlined in Paul Ryan’s budget. Smith says he likes the Ryan plan and is quick to point out that his opponent, Casey, doesn’t have a plan for Medicare.
If Smith wants to go from a no-name businessman from Western Pennsylvania to United States Senator, he’ll have to convince those Reagan Democrats, and plenty of suburban voters around Philadelphia, that Casey hasn’t lived up to his father’s reputation as an independent moderate willing to buck his party on issues of principle. Smith says the son has proven he isn’t the father.
“He’s going to have to defend his voting record, and it’s a voting record that’s very, very hard to defend,” Smith says. “I’m sure he’s a nice guy. This isn’t personal. This is business.”