WILKES-BARRE — The gloves are already off in the race for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
Now that U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta will carry the Republican torch as he tries to unseat two-term U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in November, the two Northeastern Pennsylvania natives hit the ground running Wednesday.
Barletta, 62, of Hazleton, and Casey, 58, of Scranton, will square off for what promises to be a heated campaign that will have President Donald Trump playing a significant role.
“What has Bob Casey done for the people?” Barletta asked as he headed back to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “I’m known as a fighter for the people. I relate more to the people than Casey. Casey votes with (Democratic Senator) Elizabeth Warren. Bob Casey would be a better senator for the people of California or Massachusetts, not Pennsylvania.
“Bob Casey may have a familiar name, but even giants fall.”
Casey, meanwhile, believes 2018 is a make-or-break moment for Pennsylvania.
“The deck is stacked against working families, and the middle class is getting squeezed,” Casey said. “I’m running for re-election because we have so many battles left to fight.”
Barletta expects President Trump to appear with him several times during the campaign. Barletta said he is certain Trump’s popularity among Pennsylvania voters has not waned — in fact, he feels Trump is even more popular now.
Trump won Pennsylvania by a slim margin in 2016.
”What was most significant was the level of enthusiasm for Trump that was most telling,” Barletta said. “We saw that around the state where people waited for hours to get into venues to see him and hear him speak, while thousands waited outside.”
That happened twice in Wilkes-Barre when Trump filled the Mohegan Sun Arena — 11,000-plus each time — during the campaign and thousands had to be turned away.
“President Trump has done nothing to disappoint them,” Barletta said of the billionaire’s supporters. “Unemployment is at 3.9 percent and the stock market is up more than 20 percent since he took office. The president has given people tax cuts where 90 percent of Americans will see more money in their paychecks because of it.”
Barletta also noted “unemployment for blacks and Hispanics is at an all-time low, ISIS has all but disappeared, North Korea is coming to the negotiating table and the wall is being built.”
Casey said his top priority will be eliminating the obstacles holding working families back and helping Pennsylvania’s middle class obtain a little peace and security.
“That means growing wages and creating good Pennsylvania jobs,” Casey said. “It means lowering the costs of health care, child care, and prescription drugs. It means helping families save for college and retirement. Overcoming those challenges won’t be easy but we can win these battles. I’m ready for the fight.”
Max Steele, a spokesman for the campaign, said Casey is running to do right by the people.
“If he disagrees with the president, everyone knows why,” Steele said. “But if the president is taking a position that’s good for Pennsylvania’s workers and middle class, Bob Casey will support it, as he’s done on trade and infrastructure.”
‘Try to impeach’
Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tweeted congratulations to Barletta.
“Lou is a friend of mine and a special guy. He will very much help Make America Great Again,” the president tweeted.
Barletta considers having Trump’s support an asset.
“I would be more concerned if I were Bob Casey, who has been going against Pennsylvania voters by opposing and resisting everything Trump has been doing,” Barletta said.
He hopes to see Trump supporters come out for him in November.
“I’m talking about blue collar workers — those who came out and voted for Donald Trump. Those voters cannot vote for Casey, who is one of the biggest critics of Trump’s presidency. It would be hypocritical of them to vote for Casey.”
Barletta said Casey doesn’t just disagree with some of the policies the president has proposed — “he has opposed everything.” Barletta noted Casey was one of five senators who have asked Trump to resign.
“I believe that if the Democrats gain control of the Senate, they will try to impeach Trump,” Barletta said. “That’s why Democrats can’t vote for Bob Casey.”
Casey has a huge cash advantage, with about $10 million in the bank at the end of April, compared to Barletta’s $1.3 million.
Republicans control the Senate, 51-49, and defeating Casey would give Republicans one more pro-Trump vote to help advance the president’s agenda.
Casey is among 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this year in states won by Trump, making him a prime target for Republicans.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.