Democratic incumbent Senator Bob Casey wasn’t supposed to have to break a sweat to win re-election but Republican challenger Tom Smith has mounted a come-from-behind campaign that just might work. He has done it on a wave of resonant TV ads funded in part with his own personal money.
However, the race has never been a political Thunderdome. Both men like to play it a little bit cooler. Bob Casey likes to trot out an old New York Times article describing him as someone “who registers excitement by extra eyebrow activity.” His challenger, Tom Smith can pull a convincing “aw, shucks” routine for a guy worth millions of dollars.
“I’m just an old farm boy who got misplaced in the coal mines and wound up in business,” said Smith at many a campaign event.
Very different roots for very different men
Smith is from Armstrong County. Over the years he has owned several coal companies and his political allegiances are all over the map. Two years ago, he was on his local Democratic committee and a Democratic township supervisor. It’s the only elected office he’s held. Since then, he’s earned tea party support.
Smith stresses the need for less regulation and cutting spending. He likes to talk about the national debt as a bunch of individualized overdue payments hanging over the heads of his nine grandkids.
“From 11 years old to one month old, 459 thousand dollars in debt,” note Smith.
On the other hand, the incumbent is winding down his first term in the U-S Senate. Before that, he was Pennsylvanian State Treasurer, and a two-term auditor general. He made an unsuccessful run at the governor’s office. His dad was a popular two-term governor of the keystone state.
Casey is far from a political newcomer. But in this campaign, he is something of a late bloomer. He held a big lead in every poll going into the summer but an armada of television ads by the Smith campaign managed to whittle the political scion’s popularity down to single digits less than a month before the election.
It wasn’t long after those dropping poll numbers came to light that Casey sightings across Pennsylvania became a lot more frequent. And lately, the Democrat hasn’t veered from a script meant to tout his freshman-term record.
Top billing always goes to his support for the payroll tax cut. “It’s there because of my work, and boy that put a thousand bucks in the pockets of the average working family,” said Casey on the stump.
Medicare as a common theme
Casey has repeatedly lumped Smith in with Republicans who want to gut the Medicare system. At the same time, Smith says he supports cost-cutting reforms to Medicare. He wants to let recipients receive government subsidies to help pay for private health care.
On a recent TV add Smith appears with his mother, “My own mother receives those benefits, and this son would never jeopardize that. Right, Mom?” and she responds in the affirmative. But not all of Smith’s ads have been so friendly.
“Another Barack Obama’s new regulations forced our mine to close. Senator Bob Casey supported these regulation,” said an announcer on a different ad.
Casey’s camp responded with an attack on Smith’s record as a coal company owner.
“He’s made a fortune running unsafe coal mines,” reads the voiceover actor. “500 accidents and injuries. 2,000 violations.”
But a fact check done by the Associated Press found the ad may be hitting on rather typical violations in a dangerous industry.
Both candidates acknowledge the race, at least on the airwaves, has taken a nasty turn.
“I wished it wasn’t negative, and I’ve tried very, very hard not to say, as I’ve stated to you, I will not say anything derogatory personally about Senator Bob Casey, but his voting record? It’s fair game,” said Smith.
Casey’s lead in the race has widened and stabilized recently. He’s gotten the vast majority of newspaper editorial endorsements, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the conservative-leaning editorial board at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
But the race is not done until the votes are counted. President Obama’s turnout in the Democrat-rich Philadelphia suburbs could be lower than expected. The power is still out in many southeastern precincts. And the sudden barrage of TV ads from the presidential candidates are aimed at turning out voters as each party scrambles to seal the deal.