By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — U.S. Sen. Bob Casey suddenly has a real race on his hands — and his own ads might be partially to blame.
Until the past few weeks, the race between Casey, a first-term Democratic senator, and Republican challenger Tom Smith was considered a non-event. Casey was coasting toward re-election, and Smith, who won a five-way primary among a group of unknowns in April, was hardly considered a top-tier candidate for the Republicans.
A farmer and coal executive from Armstrong County, Smith had plenty of money to make the race competitive, but as a political novice, he was miles behind Casey when it comes to name recognition.
Then, he got a gift from Casey that may have contributed to Smith’s climb in the polls.
For much of the race, the only ad Casey was running on television was an attack ad designed to make Smith appear too far to the right for most Pennsylvania voters. The ad focused on Smith’s ties to the tea party movement — it included video of Smith bragging about his role in founding a tea party group in Armstrong County — and used the tag line “Tea Party Tom Smith.”
The ad was the centerpiece — and, really, the only significant part — of Casey’s re-election campaign for most of the past two months, though he recently has started showing other ads statewide. The “Tea Party Tom Smith” theme even has a matching website to document situations where Smith has supported or endorsed tea party positions.
But the emphasis on “Tea Party Tom Smith” — a memorable turn-of-phrase that slips off the tongue and sticks in the mind — may not have been such a negative for the conservative Republican who was looking for traction and needed help getting his name in front of voters.
Chris Borick, a professor of political science and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said Casey appeared to be caught a little flat-footed in the race and handled it as if he was not facing a man like Smith who could dump millions into the race.
“It’s reasonable to question the approach he has taken,” Borick said of Casey’s campaign.
Borick has polled the race on five occasions since mid-August, when the first poll gave Casey an 18-percentage point lead. By last week, that gap was down to 2 percentage points, though a new poll released Monday showed the incumbent with an 8-percentage point lead.
The “Tea Party Tom Smith” ads were probably not overly effective, said Borick, as they were too general to connect voters with specific policies that Smith supports.
But some Republicans in the state who are watching the race closely believe the ads may have helped Smith gain a foothold in the race.
Borick’s polls seem to back up that suspicion. In a poll released on Aug. 23, 30 percent of Pennsylvanians said they had never heard of Smith. In Monday’s poll, that figure was down to 10 percent.
Larry Smar, Casey’s campaign manager, said Smith’s deep pockets would have taken care of his name recognition issues either way.
“It is important that voters know his real record of being one of the most extreme and radical candidates in the country,” Smar wrote in an email defending the advertising decision.
But not all Democrats agree.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell slammed Casey in the Scranton Times-Tribune last week, telling the paper that Casey “hasn’t run a campaign.”
“He’s run one ad, a stupid tea party ad,” Rendell told the paper.
It’s true that Smith has plenty of money and would have made sure his name was in front of voters before the election — and he has used that money on ads touting his business experience and bashing Casey’s voting record.
Smith out-fundraised Casey during the third quarter, thanks in large part to the $16 million of his own money that he has poured into the race.
Jim Conroy, Smith’s campaign manager, declined to comment on Casey’s ads, but said developing name recognition was a big part of their own campaign strategy coming out of the primaries.
“We have to get out there and tell Tom’s story. That’s a big part of it,” Conroy said.
Another big part of it has been a series of self-financed negative ads that have helped bring Casey’s numbers down into striking distance for Smith, Borick said.
And Casey appeared to be ill-prepared for the assault.
“Casey has run a less than impressive campaign to date,” Borick said. “The low-key nature of this race has created an opportunity for Smith.”
Since the race has been largely off the radar for national groups and super PACs, the two candidates’ ability to raise funds will be crucial. They will probably not get much top-of-the-ticket help from the presidential campaigns either, as Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have not spent much time or advertising dollars in Pennsylvania.
Casey was supposed to have this race in the bag a long time ago.
A former state treasurer and son of a former governor, Casey has no issues with name recognition. The Casey name has been synonymous with Pennsylvania politics for three decades.
Democrats picked up six U.S. Senate seats in the 2006 election. Of those six victories, Casey collected the highest percentage of the vote, winning more than 58 percent as he trounced then-Sen. Rick Santorum, who was seeking a third term.
Until a few weeks ago, Casey looked to be cruising toward another double-digit victory in 2012.
Republicans did not bring their A-list of candidates to the primary cycle. Smith did not even secure the state GOP nomination — usually the best indicator of primary election success — but used about $5 million of his own fortune to win the primary.
Though he is pro-life and pro-gun, Casey has supported Obama’s major initiatives, including the national health-care reform law, federal stimulus and bailouts of the banking and auto industries.
Smith does not shy away from his tea party ties or his support for the U.S. House Republican budget plan authored by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin. Smith says he would vote to repeal the health-care law and opposes government bailouts, taxpayer-funded economic stimulus and tax increases.
The two candidates have scheduled a single debate, which will take place Friday in Philadelphia.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow him on Twitter @PAIndependent.