Casey vs. Santorum

The hottest 2006 Senate race is the stuff of Democratic Party dreams. But does the anti-choice Pennsylvania state treasurer from Scranton have what it takes to unseat the Christian right's poster boy?

Published July 15, 2005 7:34PM (EDT)

When Bob Casey Jr. won the Pennsylvania state treasurer's race last fall, he rang up 3.35 million votes, more than anyone running for any office in the state -- ever. With that decisive victory, the national Democrats came calling. They were in the market for a Democratic candidate for one of the most important races of 2006: the campaign to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum. After some lobbying from the likes of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, and only four months after winning his race for state treasurer, Casey announced he was in.

And so the stage was set for the nation's next marquee Senate race, which holds the stuff of Democratic Party dreams. In Bob Casey Jr., the anti-choice son of the late Pennsylvania governor, the party sees its chance to oust the poster boy of the right who posed as saint-in-waiting on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, is a loyal supporter of President Bush, and is the No. 3 leader in the GOP Senate.

Casey, whose late father was a staple of state politics for a generation and a two-term governor, was recruited to run against the conservative Santorum primarily because of his anti-choice views. This is high irony given that the senior Casey clashed with national Democrats over his anti-choice views. But as an anti-choice Democrat capable of tapping into Pennsylvania's socially conservative rural and blue-collar vote and its urban bloc, many Democrats blissfully predict Casey Jr. will run Santorum ragged. And Democrats have some good reasons to be hopeful.

Santorum seeks reelection in a state that twice went to Bill Clinton, then to Al Gore and last year to John Kerry. A quarter of the state's population is 55 or older (only Florida has a higher percentage of elderly) at a time when the president and his Social Security agenda, which Santorum has loyally backed, slip in national polls. Early in-state polls show Santorum lagging behind Casey. A Franklin & Marshall College poll this month has Casey up seven, and a Quinnipiac University poll released July 13 has him ahead by 11 points.

One might think, from all of this, that controversial incumbent Santorum, a national leader of conservative faith-based politics -- whose new book "It Takes a Family" likens abortion to slavery -- is now too far right for Pennsylvania. One might think his days are numbered in a state with a Democratic voter registration edge of 542,000-plus. And one might think the oh-so-many who view Santorum as intolerant, cocky and self-righteous are primed for victory.

"This is a golden opportunity for Democrats. It definitely is," says Philadelphia political analyst Larry Ceisler. "Even though Pennsylvania is a blue state with red senators, Santorum's out of sync politically with the state, and he is where he is because he's always had opponents who ran bad campaigns."

Still, this race looks different from a national perspective than it does locally. For reasons including money, issues and the nature of the combatants, things aren't what they seem from outside looking in.

Casey, for example, though widely liked and admired, did not do well in a 2002 run for governor, a race far different than the three low-profile state row-office campaigns he's won. (Before his election as treasurer, Casey served two terms as auditor general, an office also held by his father, and lost a gubernatorial primary to Rendell.)

Under bright lights, Casey can be halting and dull. His campaign for governor was badly focused, an almost entirely negative race that never told voters who he is or what he believes. High expectations, based mainly on his likability and name identification, never were met. As a result, some worry about another bad campaign, and a few key in-state Democrats are hoping for evidence this campaign is different, that Casey is a different candidate, this time around. "We want to help, lots of folks want to help, but not if it's another run like the last one," says a source close to a top elected Democrat.

Santorum, on the other hand, who's been underrated his entire career, has never lost an election. He's supple with spin and quick on his feet, has killer instincts and a seemingly innate drive to survive. These two candidates might look the same on paper (both 40-something, ramrod straight pro-life Catholics with a bunch of kids), but they are not. Santorum is a polished politician with national stature and experience; Casey is a state treasurer from Scranton.

There are other snags for Casey -- on money and issues. Because he shares Santorum's basic views on abortion, guns and stem-cell research (against, for and against), hardcore Democrats worry about enthusiasm among liberal leaders and rank and filers, which translates, of course, into cash.

Peter Buttenweiser, one of the nation's major Democratic donors and fundraisers, actively works for Casey and says big-dollar givers are leery. "They're certainly concerned and they've registered concerns," Buttenweiser says. He adds, however, that he thinks that will change next year as more Democrats get excited about the prospect of defeating Santorum: "The most important thing is to keep at it and keep on it ... I think there will be fervor in this race about returning this seat to a more moderate person."

If so, the expected fervor seems to be simmering slowly.

New campaign-finance reports filed for the reporting period ending June 30 are expected to show Casey with a little more than $1 million (really not bad given the timeline). But Santorum raked in that much at one event with Bush in Pennsylvania -- to add to the $2.8 million he was sitting on after the last report at the end of March. Insiders in both camps predict vast amounts of funding from the Internet and 527 organizations in a campaign that could top $50 million. And nobody doubts Casey eventually will have enough resources to compete. But nobody doubts, either, that Santorum will outraise and outspend Casey by a lopsided margin.

A national Republican source involved in the Santorum campaign says, "Understand, this will be all hands on deck: the White House, [John] McCain, [Rudy] Giuliani, the whole lineup." And because many Republicans see the race as a referendum on the Bush presidency, gains by the right and maybe the future of the conservative movement, GOP funding and fervency are likely to hit record highs.

Even moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who, at 75 and fighting cancer, remains a formidable political force, is working hard for Santorum, especially fundraising in the Jewish community. As payback for Santorum's helping Specter win a bitter GOP primary last year, Specter calls Santorum's reelection his "No. 1 priority." Even if there's residual far-right angst about Santorum aiding Specter, Specter's help now should balance the scales.

Yet on the other side there are concerns that Casey isn't Democrat enough. Democratic sources say national fundraising efforts are drawing cool responses. Already bloggers are greeting fundraising e-mails from John Kerry with references to other potential candidates such as pro-choice Philadelphia University of the Arts professor Chuck Pennacchio. He and pro-choice Philadelphia lawyer Alan Sandals both say they'll oppose Casey in a Democratic primary. And while there's little concern about a competitive primary, an undercurrent of liberal dissatisfaction is setting up a potentially ugly scenario for Casey: Santorum drawing support from the full GOP spectrum and Casey unable to counterpunch.

"I don't expect Bobby will be getting a check from Barbra Streisand," said a Casey confidante speaking on condition of anonymity. A national Democratic source present at a private Democratic fundraiser with Hillary Clinton in San Francisco recently said the New York senator's pitch for Casey landed as "a complete dud" with the crowd of potential donors. Even strong Casey supporters, some still smarting from the '02 race, are frustrated and fearful of what lies ahead.

Donna Gentile O'Donnell, for example, a life sciences expert at the Eastern Technology Council in suburban Philadelphia, is an unofficial advisor to the Casey campaign, and she's not happy. She says efforts to move Casey left on federal support for embryonic stem-cell research as a way to appeal to liberal voters are not going well. "I'm leaving my church since it named [conservative Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger pope, and now I'm disturbed about my party," O'Donnell says. "The anti-intellectual trend in the Catholic Church is troubling and is producing the kind of intransigent positions on stem cells consistent with Bobby's historical position." She says that position, which mirrors Bush's and allows only limited stem-cell research, hurts Casey.

"It doesn't help," says another Casey ally, "when Gov. Rendell gets up at a [recent] biotech conference and says 'anybody who's reasonable' supports more stem-cell research." Meanwhile, there's an obvious effort to mollify the left.

Pro-choice Barbara Hafer, a Republican turned Democrat who was originally recruited by Rendell to run against Santorum (she lost the 1990 race for governor to Casey's father), recently endorsed Casey in an e-mail to "35,000 activists." And pro-choice Democratic state House leader H. William DeWeese just published a letter to the editor in the Harrisburg Patriot-News pleading Casey's case: "I have been an advocate of a woman's right to choose for more than 30 years ... [but] I am fed up with the notion that Democrats must go forward in zombie-like lockstep on every single issue." He notes Casey supports public funding for family planning services and contraceptive equity for health insurance coverage.

Whether such efforts will succeed remains to be seen. Asked if he's worried about early chilly receptions along the money trail, Casey says, "It really doesn't concern me. There's a tremendous outpouring of support in Pennsylvania and beyond the state ... I thought the early months would be difficult, more difficult than they have been."

Yet, Santorum, to many, seems so gettable.

He has a habit of saying things that make folks question his acuity if not his fitness for office. His new book, in likening abortion to slavery, states: "But unlike abortion today, in most states even the slaveholder did not have the unlimited right to kill his slave." The book is supposed to "counter the worldview" of Hillary Clinton.

He has also likened Democrats to Nazis, claims Terri Schiavo was "executed," said the mainstream media lies about him, equated homosexuality with bestiality, and claimed the Catholic priest pedophile scandal in Boston was really no surprise since Boston is "a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism." Santorum enraged Bostonians this week by standing by that statement, adding: "The basic liberal attitude in that area ... has an impact on people's behavior."

Santorum also got attention this spring for showing up at Terri Schiavo's deathbed while he was in Florida raising money for his campaign. And he took a hit last year for charging state taxpayers to cyber-educate his kids even though they live with him and his wife in Virginia. (This particularly rankles those who remember Santorum won a seat in Congress in 1990 by calling then incumbent Doug Walgren out of touch because he lived in Virginia.)

In addition, Santorum faces Casey in a year that Democratic Gov. and former national Democratic chairman Rendell seeks reelection. No incumbent Pennsylvania governor seeking a second term (since successive terms were permitted starting in 1974) has lost. And Rendell's strongest draw is from the state's southeast where he was a popular two-term mayor of Philadelphia, where 32 percent of the state's voters live, and where Rendell's presence on the ballot is certain to drive Democratic turnout and thus favor Casey.

Then there's the whole Santorum-as-Bush tack. As the race takes shape, it's clear Casey will go after Santorum on Social Security and healthcare, issues on which Bush and Republicans haven't made progress, while the sub-campaign runs against, as one source puts it, "an intolerant far-right ideologue living in Virginia." And whatever might be lost from liberals upset with Casey's stand on abortion could be made up, says one Casey insider, with support from national gay groups eager to see Santorum fail.

And Santorum? Just as Casey's camp seeks to push him right, he'll no doubt try to push Casey left -- just another obstructionist Democrat with no answers, only complaints.

The race could well redefine the Democratic Party and set the stage for the '08 presidential election. Can Democrats embrace a candidate who disagrees with a fundamental party plank? Or, the race could reaffirm the power of the right. Can Republicans continue to keep conservatives in power? Either way, it's a race in the spotlight, even if the picture isn't quite in focus.

By John M. Baer

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Abortion Pennsylvania Rick Santorum