By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The Republicans need to capture only four seats to yank the U.S. Senate from Democratic control — and Pennsylvania could be one of them.
Now that the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race is on the national radar, the question is whether the Republican cavalry will support Tom Smith’s upstart campaign.
Smith, a farmer and former coal company executive from Armstrong County, has pulled to within 10 points of first-term U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa, according to multiple polls of voters in the state this past week.
Some observers say the race must get tighter before the national fundraisers will take notice, but with some national races leaning Democrat in recent weeks, the Smith-Casey battle could energize the Republican base.
“We’re trying to make our case,” said Chris Gleason, finance chairman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, at a GOP gathering Friday near here. “The Republicans should have been in a better position, nationally, but we can try to take advantage of that here.”
Republicans are likely to lose their seats in Maine and Massachusetts. They also could miss out on what was considered an easy pickup in North Dakota, but pickups in Wisconsin, Montana and Nebraska remain likely, according to several national prognosticators.
Smith downplayed the effect his sudden climb in the polls could have on fundraising, but he said the campaign had made good on their end of the bargain by getting closer in the polls.
“If we get it close, we’ll have some help from outside,” Smith said.
Two weeks ago, an internal Republican poll of 800 likely voters stunned observers by showing Smith to be trailing by only three points – within the margin of error.
An independent poll from Quinnipiac University last week showed Smith trailing Casey by 6 percentage points — 49 percent to 43 percent — after a poll from the same group in August showed Casey with an 18 percentage point lead.
But the real question is whether the Smith campaign can continue closing the gap, said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I think most of us expected the race to get tighter,” Madonna said. “But if it gets within 4 or 5 points, I think there could be some reassessment.”
Through June, Smith had spent more than $6 million of his own money on the race, most of it during the primary election, where he separated himself from a field of five candidates who all lacked fundraising ability and name recognition.
New campaign finance reports are due Oct. 15 to the Federal Elections Commission.
There has been a moderate amount of outside spending in the race, but more could be on the way if things continue to tighten in the final month of the campaign.
Freedom Works, a national conservative political action committee, has spent more than $4 million in support of Smith through the end of September, according to FEC filings.
Meanwhile, Workers Voice, the super PAC affiliated with the AFL-CIO, a national coalition of labor unions, has spent more than $1.1 million on Casey’s campaign, according to the FEC.
Most of Smith’s ads — with the help of Freedom Works — have attempted to brand Casey as being in lock-step with President Barack Obama on controversial issues like the federal health-care overhaul and environmental regulations.
Madonna said that move has been successful, but questioned whether running against Obama will pay off for Smith. Most polls show Obama to be winning Pennsylvania by between 5 percent and 10 percent.
Casey’s campaign, along with the union super PAC, have highlighted Smith’s tea party connections — he founded one of the conservative grassroots groups in Armstrong County — in the hopes of making him seem too far to the right of most Pennsylvania voters.
Larry Smar, Casey’s campaign manager, pointed to the contributions from Freedom Works on Monday as further evidence of Smith’s tea party ties.
“Tom Smith is far to the right of mainstream Republican candidates and he is running a campaign to appeal to his Tea Party base,” said Larry Smar, Casey’s campaign manager, in an email Monday.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.