WILKES-BARRE — Political observers believe the potential Barletta-Casey showdown for U.S. Senate will be mean, nasty, and very expensive.
Congressman Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, made it official Tuesday — he will seek the Republican nomination to run against two-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton.
“Well, here we go — 2018 just got exciting for PA politics,” said Jeff Brauer, political science professor at Keystone College. “This could possibly become the most watched and important race in the country. No doubt big money will pour in on both sides. There will be immense national attention and campaigning surrogates galore, most likely including even the president. The race could likely determine the balance in the Senate — whether Republicans keep the majority or the Democrats take over.”
Currently, there are 52 Republicans in the Senate, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents.
“As a congressman with a steady conservative record and open support for Trump, Barletta is sure to garner major national Republican resources for his campaign,” Brauer said.
But he still gives the edge to Casey.
“He has all the advantages of incumbency,” said Brauer. “And he has enjoyed a healthy level of constituent approval and a good record of accomplishments for the state.”
But Barletta still has a path to victory, the professor says.
“If Barletta can put together a similar Trump coalition of voters, he has a real chance of defeating Casey,” said Brauer. “So put on your seat belts. We are in for a political ride.”
Tom Baldino, political science professor at Wilkes University, said name recognition will play a huge role in the outcome.
“To win an election, a candidate must establish as high a degree of name recognition as possible,” Baldino said. “Voters are much less likely to cast their ballots for candidates they don’t know, or about whom they know very little.”
Baldino also noted it’s not a given Barletta will win the GOP primary.
As to issues, Baldino said health care will be critical. He said Barletta’s vote to end the Affordable Care Act and for the Republican replacement bill will be mentioned continuously by Casey. Meanwhile, he predicts Barletta will discuss immigration policy at every opportunity. Infrastructure spending should also be on the agenda as the state’s roads and bridges need attention, Baldino said.
“And Casey should argue that retaining the seat for the Democrats is important in order to keep a check on the unpredictable president,” noted Baldino.
Baldino said Barletta could win the race, but it will not be easy.
“The key for both candidates’ success will be turning out their respective base voters,” he explained. “Since this is a mid-term, or off-year election (that is, one without the president at the top of the ticket), turnout will be low, probably 35 percent of the eligible voters. If Democrats are more motivated than usual to turn out to vote against Trump, then Casey will win handily. But if Democrats stay home, a well-funded Republican can take the seat.”
Baldino said with a president who creates controversy nearly every day, it’s impossible to predict what public opinion will be by the time of the election.
“If Trump’s policies appear to harm PA’s voters, e.g. hurt senior citizens, cost PA workers jobs, etc., then PA’s voters will take their anger out on Republican candidates running for the House and the Senate,” he said. “This is typically why the party of the president loses seats in off-year elections as they are viewed as referenda on the president’s agenda.”
The incumbent factor
Professor G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, believes Casey will be very hard to beat.
“Casey has won five statewide elections, four of them by double digits,” Madonna pointed out. “He has raised his profile in the past two years and is a fierce critic of Trump, except on the trade policy. He is also close to working class voters unlike many other Democrats. None of the national ratings have the state listed as toss up, it’s either lean or likely Democrat.”
Madonna said if Barletta is the GOP candidate, the race becomes an election about Trump.
“The Democrats are in what could be a big Democratic wave next year,” said Madonna. “Now that could change if somehow Trump’s job performance improves. It will be one of the most observed and followed elections in the cycle.”
‘Mean and nasty’
Ed Mitchell, longtime political analyst, also believes Barletta faces an uphill battle.
“It won’t be easy to overtake someone who has been as effective and as honest as Bob Casey,” Mitchell said. “Barletta is taking a big risk tying his horse to Trump’s wagon. I don’t think Trump will even be around by the end of the year.”
Mitchell noted Casey already has about $6 million in his campaign coffers, while Barletta has less than $1 million.
“This will probably be the most expensive Senate race in the country,” he said. “And it will be mean and nasty.”
Brian F. Carso, associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University, doesn’t see how Barletta could win as things stand right now.
“… Trump’s national approval ratings are at historic lows,” said Carso. “While Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016, it was by a razor-thin margin. If Trump doesn’t get his approval numbers up significantly, I don’t see how a Trump surrogate like Barletta wins against Bob Casey.”