By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race wasn’t high on the list of tossup races. But a good, old-fashioned attack ad brawl may be chipping away the margins, according to recent poll numbers.
In one corner stands the presumable prince of Pennsylvania politics, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. The Scranton-born Democrat, son of former Gov. Bob Casey, served as the commonwealth’s auditor general and treasurer before heading to Washington in 2007. From steel to small business, he says his top priority for Pennsylvania is jobs.
In the other corner, there’s Tom Smith, a former coal mine owner from Armstrong County. The largely self-financed Republican challenger lacks the name recognition of Casey, but he’s trying to use that to his advantage. He’s no career politician, you’ll hear him say in his latest ad.
Whereas Casey once had a solid lead, poll numbers released Wednesday show Smith closing in. The shift comes after a rousing round of televised attack ads throughout September.
The poll, conducted on Sept. 18 through Sept. 24, surveyed 1,180 likely Pennsylvania voters with a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
But it shows a marked leap in Smith’s likely supporters. In August, a similar poll from Quinnipiac had Casey ahead by a margin of 18 percentage points.
In responding to the news about the poll numbers, Larry Smar, Casey’s campaign manager, said in an email to PA Independent that Smith’s “divisive brand of politics is too extreme for Pennsylvania.”
He dismissed anything conclusive about the polls.
“Public polls have been all over the place,” Smar said. “Tom Smith has dumped millions of his personal fortune into attack ads. A lot of people don’t yet know Tom Smith’s record of founding a tea party group and pushing policies to dismantle Medicare in order to give more tax cuts for the wealthy.”
The Smith campaign took advantage of the gains, releasing a statement touting the results. Smith “has clearly captured the momentum,” said his campaign manager, Jim Conroy.
“Voters are rejecting Bob Casey’s misleading negative attacks in favor of Tom’s positive vision for the future and detailed plan to grow the economy and create jobs,” said Conroy’s statement.
Casey swung at Smith with a Sept. 12 ad introducing voters to “Tea Party Tom Smith,” in which he chews out Smith’s proposed policy changes.
“But is Tom Smith your cup of tea? He wants to privatize Social Security and end Medicare as we know it, making seniors pay $6,000 more all while giving even more tax breaks to the wealthy,” the narrator says.
Shortly after, Smith pulled the trigger on his own offensive. On Sept. 18, his campaign launched the “Facts” ad, aiming squarely at Casey’s Congressional voting record.
The ad claims the incumbent voted to raise taxes 50 times, and approved a $700 billion cut to Medicare to fund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“The truth is, it’s time for a change,” the ad concludes.
The Casey campaign rebuked the ad, and didn’t let that last claim slide so easily. It pointed to a number of reports that say the $700 billion figure isn’t a cut, but total reductions in Medicare spending over the next decade because of policies in the health-care reform plan.
When it comes to the money muscling the fight, Casey leads, but Smith has spent more.
As of June 30, Casey raised $10.6 million, and still had $6.7 million on hand, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of the money, about 67 percent, comes from contributions from individuals.
Smith has raised $7.9 million and had $2.2 still on hand, according to the same data set. But 85 percent of his funding, or nearly $6.8 million, is self-financed through personal loans.
A poll by Lancaster liberal arts college Franklin & Marshall College released Wednesday shows Casey leading by 12 percentage points, 46 percent to 34 percent, a significant tightening since the beginning of summer. In June, a poll from the same organization showed Casey ahead 42 percent to 21 percent.
On this side of summer, things changed. In addition to the recent television buys, in late August Smith made national headlines after seemingly comparing pregnancy out of marriage to rape. His comments came at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon. Smith backtracked on the comments, but not before they could circulate through the Internet news cycle.
Smith’s name-recognition numbers have improved since August, according to the September poll.
An additional 14 percent of respondents in the Franklin and Marshall poll said they haven’t made up their minds, potentially enough to swing the vote in Smith’s favor.
The poll, conducted from Sept. 18 through Sept. 23, surveyed 632 Pennsylvania voters with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.