How the Pennsylvania Senate Primary Explains Democrats' Chances to Keep the Senate

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In swing states like this one across the country, Republican candidates are squabbling while Democratic senators rejoice over the lack of strong challengers.

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Bob Casey is in strong position for re-election as Republicans fight it out in the primary. Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - On Tuesday, Republicans go to the polls to pick a U.S. Senate nominee in a five-way primary in this paradigmatic swing state. But it's generally agreed the winner will be the pick of a bad litter.

In the race to take on Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, "There are a bunch of fools running, literally," Philadelphia-based media consultant Neil Oxman tells me. "These are not even C-team people. It's the D team. They're silly people."

Across the political spectrum, Pennsylvania observers say the same thing. The state's veteran independent pollster, Terry Madonna, says Casey "looks relatively safe." Observes a Republican insider in Harrisburg, "I don't know anyone who thinks Bob Casey's going to lose."

In a state where the president is relatively unpopular and the GOP romped in 2010, what ought to be the marquee non-presidential contest has seemingly already been taken off the board.

The reasons why help tell the story of why national Democrats are feeling good about keeping the Senate in a year when few expected they could pull it off: Across the country, from Florida to Ohio, sitting Democratic senators who ought to be sorely vulnerable are instead watching from the sidelines while their rivals squabble or implode.

Of the five Republicans in the Pennsylvania primary, three are thought to be in contention. Only one has any state-level political experience -- Sam Rohrer, who formerly served in the 203-member state House of Representatives and lost the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.

His two main opponents, Steve Welch and Tom Smith, are both wealthy businessmen and former Democrats: Welch, a 35-year-old venture capitalist, was registered as a Democrat as recently as 2008, when he voted for Barack Obama in the primary; Smith, a 68-year-old coal mine magnate, served in local office as a Democrat for decades.

With no recent public polls, the primary is anyone's to lose -- if anyone even cares. The race has received very little attention even within the state. That's made it hard for Rohrer, a hard-line conservative who's been endorsed by Rep. Michele Bachmann, to make the case that he's the real Republican in the race.

"What people in this state don't want is, they don't want another Arlen Specter," a somewhat exasperated Rohrer, a slight, bespectacled 56-year-old with an Alfred E. Neuman grin, said in an interview after a Tea Party event in Philadelphia. "The energy, the heart of the Republican Party, wants someone who is a true Republican -- a conservative who they can count on."

Specter, the moderate Pennsylvania Republican who switched parties only to be defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary, saw his Senate seat remain in GOP hands when Democrat Joe Sestak lost the general election to conservative Republican Pat Toomey. It was part of that year's Republican wave in the state and across the country: The party also captured the Pennsylvania governor's mansion, both chambers of the statehouse and five seats in Congress.

Despite that record, however, Republicans acknowledge they have little chance to take out Casey, the pro-life son of a popular former governor who defeated former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2006.

A person familiar with the Republicans' national Senate strategy, speaking anonymously in order to be frank about the contest, admitted to me that the GOP has no plans to invest in the Pennsylvania race -- and grouped it in the same tier of contests as Hawaii, which was the bluest state in the country in 2008.

"It's fair to say Democrats are favored in that [Pennsylvania] race," the strategist said, hastening to add that anything was possible. "But can you foresee a scenario where it becomes a dark horse race in October? Sure. There's always a couple of races that pop up in October that you don't expect."

This is not an election cycle that ought to find the GOP at a disadvantage -- and to be sure, Republicans' chances remain good. With 23 seats held by members of Majority Leader Harry Reid's caucus up for reelection versus just 10 Republican-held seats, it would take a net loss of just four to push Reid into the minority. By all rights, the GOP ought to be a near-lock to take the Senate -- but instead, it's Republicans who seem to be sweating to make the case they can win.

In our conversation, the GOP strategist insisted to me that the lack of a strong challenge in Pennsylvania wasn't a problem. "The path to the majority doesn't run through Pennsylvania," the strategist said. If Republicans win Democrat-held seats in four solidly red states -- North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Montana -- and hold two of three GOP-held seats facing tough challenges -- Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts -- they can take the Senate even if they lose the big swing-state contests in Wisconsin, Virginia, New Mexico and Ohio. Then there are the relative long shots: Florida, where weak opposition has Democrat Bill Nelson looking nearly as safe as Casey; Hawaii, where the GOP scored a strong recruit in Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle; and Pennsylvania.

A national Democratic Senate strategist, meanwhile, had this sarcastic comment on the undistinguished field in the Pennsylvania Senate primary: "Oh, yeah, any one of those 17 guys could really give [Casey] a race."

Republicans, this strategist said, have been hamstrung by their determination not to antagonize local activists by getting involved early in Senate races -- a hangover from 2010, when national Republicans' involvement in races like the Florida primary between Charlie Crist and now-Sen. Marco Rubio was aggressively rebuffed, and the success of Tea Party primary challengers in states like Delaware and Nevada proved disastrous.

"They were overaggressive and tripped a lot of wires," the Democrat said. "So they did literally a 180 and now they're not involved at all." In states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Nebraska, Missouri and Michigan, that's hampered recruiting, as national Republicans can't offer to help the strongest candidate get through the primary. "And that's led to an inability to put other states on the map, like West Virginia and New Jersey, where they could be competitive with the right candidate," the Democrat said.

In Pennsylvania, several Republicans with higher profiles than those currently running passed on the race -- the most frequently mentioned are two members of Congress, Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent. And so now the primary is the current free-for-all of relative no-names.

Rohrer, the former state legislator, told me he spends much of his time trying to convince skeptical voters that Casey -- an inoffensive but not particularly distinguished politician -- can, in fact, be defeated.

"I can assure you it is not impossible. By no means is he unbeatable," Rohrer said. "I've been traveling this state, and Bob Casey will not face the same wind in the sails that he faced six years ago. These will be headwinds." Casey, he said, "is a nice guy, but Pennsylvanians expect their senators to lead, to champion issues. Bob has not." Rohrer also charged that Casey has "not kept his word on key issues," including abortion and the Second Amendment.

I sought a response from Casey's camp, but the senator's spokesman, Larry Smar, did not seem particularly interested in giving one.

"Obviously, it is a crowded and increasingly nasty battle," he said in an email of the GOP primary. "They seem to have their hands full with one another at the moment, so we will see what happens on Tuesday."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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