A hoary adage about the weather is often attributed to Mark Twain: if you don’t like it now, just wait five minutes and it will change. Something like that has happened to the burgeoning reelection campaign of Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, who is now running for a third term as U.S. Senate.
It was just a few short weeks ago that the expected Casey race looked like a ho-hum affair in which the popular senator, bearing the iconic Casey name, would sweep to reelection against whatever sacrificial lamb the GOP served up to contest him. After all, Casey has run five times statewide for three separate offices in the past 15 years, winning all in landslides.
Moreover, his 2018 candidacy would mean that going back to his father, the near-legendary governor of the same name, marks the 15th time the Casey name had appeared on a state ballot over some six decades.
But then along came Lou - as in Republican Congressman Lou Barletta, the Republican incumbent in Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional district - and everything changed. Casey’s scheduled walk-through became a possible marathon and one of the safest Democratic seats in the U.S. Senate suddenly looked competitive.
Barletta is a competent, likable congressman who entered politics as a small-town mayor, parlaying that into a congressional seat by advocating controversial, albeit wildly popular policies to combat illegal immigration.
He now sits in one of the most gerrymandered seats in one of the most gerrymandered states, in a seat he could probably occupy for life if he chose. Yet, he instead has chosen to give that up to enter what looks like a testy GOP primary, armed with a war chest of only about a half-million dollars and low statewide name recognition.
He does so for one compelling reason: His mere presence in the race will transform it into a direct referendum on Trump. That’s because politically speaking, Barletta was Trump before Trump was Trump.
In fact, one source has referred to Barletta as Trump’s “political Godfather” owing to his early high-profile efforts to stem illegal immigration. Barletta was also one of the very first politicians to publicly support Trump’s long-shot presidential run, and he has been one of Trump’s strongest supporters in office. He was briefly a candidate for two different cabinet posts and introduced a bill to help fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S. Mexican border. Trump and Barletta are joined at the hip.
Meanwhile, Casey has become the “un-Trump,” transforming himself into one of the president's harshest critics. With the notable exception of trade policy, Casey has emphasized his opposition to Trump across the board. Moreover, this is a referendum Trump apparently wants as he has publicly and privately encouraged Barletta to get into the race. Trump is in it to win it, as they say.
But is it winnable? Can a relatively obscure congressman from rural Pennsylvania bring down the reigning colossus of Pennsylvania state politics? Probably not. Some commentators have taken to characterizing Barletta’s task as a “high hill” to climb. But the more apt metaphor is probably “a bridge too far.” Money will be his first problem. Currently, Casey has about 10 times more cash on hand ($5.5 million). But even that will barely be ante-up money in 2018. The Toomey race in 2016 topped $176 million, setting a national record for a Senate race. It’s possible that 2018 will exceed that. Barletta has little experience in raising that kind of funding.
While Trump will aggressively support him, Senate Republicans will be less generous, committing national funds to races considered more winnable and supported by Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Nor will Trump’s low approval ratings in the state help Barletta. Certainly, much of Trump’s core 2016 constituency still supports him. But with Trump’s approval rating hovering around the mid 30’s, will his base go to the polls to support Barletta?
Conversely, Casey enters the race with an enormous 800,000-plus active voter registration edge statewide, including huge majorities in vote-rich Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And Barletta will struggle against Casey on the vital trade issues so resonant in the state. Casey has carefully built his image as an advocate for fair trade policies and a critic of many free trade policies.
Similarly, Casey has minded the home fires, devoting much time to town halls and interacting with ordinary folks. He has also maintained a reputation for responsiveness to constituency service. While long considered a low-profile campaigner, Casey has become a skilled debater and a competent speaker. In addition, he is mostly inoculated on the ever-bitter issues in Pennsylvania of abortion and guns. As both pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, he incurs few of the handicaps in rural regions of the state experienced by most Democrats.
Finally, a statistic supplied by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia spells out Barletta’s challenge: For more than a century, the reelection rate for incumbent senators of the party not in the White House is 91 percent. Statistically speaking, that makes Barletta’s chances of beating Casey about 9 percent.
That’s better than no chance at all – but not by much.
Dr. G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.