By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania voters should find it easy to spot the differences in their U.S. Senate candidates.
The contrasts were never more evident than on Friday morning, when Democrat Sen. Bob Casey and former coal mine exec Republican Tom Smith met for their first and only debate, an apex of a tightening race.
On policy, Casey opposes the Ryan budget. Smith supports it. Casey wants to keep the Affordable Care Act around. Smith wants it repealed.
Personally, Casey is a political savant who has held multiple offices. Smith is a self-described “farm boy” turned multi-millionaire.
The pair debated at WPVI studios in Philadelphia, and it was taped for a Sunday broadcast. Two dozen reporters from Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., viewed the exchange via television in a studio conference room.
The hour-long back-and-forth touched on the economy, foreign policy, infrastructure, women’s health and Medicare spending, with a push-and-pull pace of two-minute answers and rebuttals. Casey proved more comfortable on stage, keeping a deliberate pace with measured motions. But Smith was fiery in his criticisms of Washington’s inability to act and Casey’s party-line votes.
Smith proved his clumsiness when he accidentally called moderator Jim Gardner “Larry,” but time after time he drove home his main point — Washington needs to fix the economy, and his business background qualifies him to lead job growth.
“The bottom line is, we’ve gotten here because of no action in the past and we need to send people to Washington that will make those decisions, get this economy going, and we have the plan to do that,” Smith said.
On a question about how to fund infrastructure, Smith said growing the economy and cutting other spending would create funding. Casey turned the question on its head, saying the lack of transportation funding reflects the partisanship and ideology issues of Washington.
“Unfortunately, the partisanship meant we had a very close vote on the Recovery Act, which provided some means of support for infrastructure,” Casey said, referencing the stimulus plan. “Candidly, looking back on it now, we should’ve done more on that bill when we passed the Recovery Act.”
Casey said his opponent brings a “no-compromise” ideology, and Washington needs more bipartisanship, not less. He pointed out his willingness to cut spending, saying he has voted for more than one trillion in cuts, but was critical of his opponent’s plan on the federal budget.
“If we’re gonna allow Tea Party ideology to govern Washington, we’re gonna be in worse shape,” Casey said. “If we default on our obligations as he’s proposed on this issue, it would ruin the economy, it would lead to job loss in the millions and it would be terrible for the future economic interests of the country.”
Gardner and the panelists had to push both candidates at different times to stop skirting the question — Smith on specific cuts to government spending, and Casey on plans for addressing the fiscal cliff.
Twice, Casey interjected to say, “That’s not true,” — once on ACA tax policies and again on Senate budget votes. Smith paused before responding, at first with “Anyhow,” and then “That is true.”
The race, at one time considered a lock for the incumbent after Smith secured the primary, has turned into a multi-million dollar spectacle of ads. In metropolitan markets such as Philadelphia and Harrisburg, it’s tough to find a prime-time commercial break that passed without an attack ad mentioning “Tea Party Tom Smith” or “Bob Casey and the political class.”
Casey enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls throughout the summer, which narrowed to single digits in late September. The latest average of polls from Real Clear Politics shows Casey ahead by 6.5 percentage points, 48 to 41.5.
At end of the September, Casey had $5.2 million on hand, according to FEC records. His receipts total more than $9.1 million, with about 70 percent of that coming from individual contributions.
Throughout the race, Smith invested $16.8 million of his own money in the campaign, out of receipts totaling $19.6 million. By the last filing deadline Sept. 30, Smith had a little more than $7 million.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by the incumbent or his supporters, with Casey hitting the campaign trail statewide, and the Democratic Majority PAC chipping into to buy ads for Casey earlier this week.
“I’ve been in lot of tough races,” Casey said to reporters after the debate. “And this is a tough race.”