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In Pa., Farmer Smith Digs In Against Casey

In Pa., Farmer Smith Digs In Against Casey

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 19, 2012


SHELOCTA, Pa. -- Tom Smith was mowing wheat on his 400-acre Armstrong County farm last summer when he decided he would run for U.S. Senate.

Smith was born and raised on this stretch of land an hour's drive outside Pittsburgh where coal mines neighbor corn farms, and he remembers wondering that day how the national debt would impact his grandchildren, some of whom also live on the farm. After talking it over with his wife and his pastor, Smith changed his voter registration from Democrat to Republican, and began a bid for the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat -- and Pennsylvania brand name -- Bob Casey.

“I was raised in a time where a farm boy, just a farm boy, who knew how to work, could follow his dream and achieve it,” says Smith, who later made millions owning several coal mines close to his farm and is self-funding a substantial part of his Senate bid. “This country gave me the opportunity to come off the farm, start my own business and do reasonably well. My goodness gracious sakes alive, who wouldn’t give a part of his life to protect that for future generations? He couldn’t have a heart if he didn’t.”

Smith, 64, sounds earnest in his willingness to leave this bucolic setting for frenzied Washington. But his challenge to Casey is a long shot. The RealClearPolitics average shows the first-term senator leading Smith by 15 points. A June Quinnipiac University poll finds Smith trailing the incumbent by 17 points overall, and 14 points among independents. Smith is a relative unknown in the state, while his opponent is a former state treasurer, the son of the late, well-known and popular two-term Gov. Robert Casey Sr., and has a well-established organization behind him throughout the state.

But Casey has failed to break 50 percent in the polls, a potentially vulnerable position for an incumbent. Casey pointed this out in a fundraising letter recently, and warned of Smith’s ability to self-fund and the possibility of Karl Rove’s super PAC getting involved. Crossroads GPS has spent $2.7 million on the presidential race in the Keystone State but has not reserved airtime for the Senate contest. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has been working with the Smith campaign, but it is not clear whether it will spend much time and money on this race either. It has been 50 years since a Democrat was re-elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania, but Casey faces better odds than his predecessors.

The Casey brand, combined with an expected high Democratic turnout in a presidential election year (no GOP White House contender has won the state since 1988) seems to have deterred better-known Republicans from running in this race. “Had there been a Pat Toomey warmed up in the bullpen in the Republican Party to take on Senator Casey, we would not be talking today,” Smith says, referring to the Republican senator elected in 2010.

But Smith embraces his underdog status. “I like being underestimated,” he says after finishing a lunch of grilled cheese and chili at Tina’s Log Cabin Restaurant, a diner located in the small town near his farm. A waitress comes to refill his soda, and asks if he is running for something. Smith nods, and mentions the Senate. She asks: Is it the state one or the “big one”? The U.S. Senate, he replies quietly.

An Energy Deficit?

Smith’s folksy appeal and successful business experience make him an attractive candidate in many parts of this manufacturing-based battleground state, but observers say he needs to turn up the heat to make this a competitive race.

“Honestly, they’ve got to light the fire under the candidate,” says John Brabender, a longtime Republican strategist who worked on Rick Santorum's losing 2006 Senate campaign against Casey as well as his presidential campaign. (Brabender also worked for Smith’s primary opponent, Tom Welch). “What hasn’t happened yet is people aren’t looking at and talking about that race.” Smith’s challenge, he asserts, “is that he needs to move this race into place because it’s the type of race where you can’t do that in the final weeks. The next four to five weeks may just be the most critical for Tom Smith that there are.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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