By Jim Ellis
May 5, 2017 — There is renewed interest from Republicans in challenging Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., but the Senate campaign is still slow to materialize. Fresh from President Trump’s and Sen. Pat Toomey’s simultaneous but highly different wins in 2016, the GOP now has recent political victory paths from which to chart a new Senate campaign against the two-term Democratic incumbent.
This week, a new potential candidate may be coming onto the scene but, if so, he will have to quickly jump-start his campaign apparatus. Four-term Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazelton/Luzerne County) confirms that he is considering entering the Senate race, but his campaign treasury is a long way from being ready for a statewide campaign.
In many ways, President Trump and Sen. Toomey ran strategically opposite campaigns, yet both were able to win close Keystone State elections. The Trump strategy was to increase turnout, meaning the Republican vote in the outer suburbs and the rural areas, in order to counter the substantial Democratic margins coming from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metro areas.
What accounted for the Trump PA victory was the future president carrying the 11 congressional districts outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by a 22 percentage point margin (as compared to Mitt Romney’s 11-point 2012 victory spread in this region) with a turnout factor eight percent above the previous presidential election’s turnout mark. In the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts, turnout increased three percent.
But, Toomey’s strategy was much different. His goal was to outperform previous Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, and still run strong in the rural areas. This is no easy feat, since the issue positions that suburban women, in particular, gravitate around (i.e., Toomey attempting to become a moderating influence over the gun control debate) are diametrically opposed to the issue stances of those who live in the outer suburbs and rural regions.
In the 2016 election, Sen. Toomey out-performed President Trump by a full 5.6 percent in the five counties that comprise the Philadelphia metropolitan area (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia), a margin of 79,527 votes. In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, Toomey’s margin was only 1,836 votes, or less than one percent. Therefore, President Trump out-paced Toomey in the rest of the state by 2.4 percent, keeping in mind that the turnout was five percent higher in the rural regions than in combined Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metro.
At this point, two state representatives, a wealthy businessman, and a small town local official have formally declared. State legislators Rick Saccone and Jim Christiana hail from the Pittsburgh suburban area, each unseated Democratic incumbents, and both have 100 percent ratings from the American Conservative Union.
The question of whether they can organize statewide, and more importantly, construct a fundraising apparatus to obtain the millions of dollars that it will take to effectively campaign against Sen. Casey, may well be another story. The answer for Saccone appears to be negative, since he was only able to amass just slightly over $23,000 in the first quarter. Obviously, raising such a paltry sum relegates him to minor candidate status until he begins to command sizable resources.
Christiana just announced his candidacy, so he is not yet obligated to file a financial disclosure statement. The same is true for real estate developer Jeff Bartos. Berwick City Councilman Andrew Shecktor (R) is also an announced candidate, but he, too, has yet to disclose finances.
Sen. Casey posted a strong first quarter fundraising effort, obtaining more than $2.7 million in contributions and posting a robust $3.8 million cash-on-hand figure. If Rep. Barletta and also Erie area Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Butler), another House member who was said to be considering entering the Senate campaign several weeks ago, actually declare for the statewide race, either would need to kick their fundraising operations into high gear. Neither had a major financial first quarter, and while Rep. Kelly has close to $1 million in the bank, Rep. Barletta is well below $400,000.
Sen. Casey clearly has the early edge and his activity level indicates that he is trying to maximize his advantage. Time remains, of course, but unless the situation begins to change in the near future, what should be a key GOP opportunity race appears headed to the second tier.