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

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

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."

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

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