Friday, February 10, 2006

American Prospect Online - The Keystone Race

American Prospect Online - The Keystone Race: "The Keystone Race
The Pennsylvania Senate race could again pave the way for a Clinton presidency.
By Terence Samuel
Web Exclusive: 02.10.06

Anger management consultant Ken Mehlman, who moonlights as chairman of the Republican National Committee, was in Southeastern Pennsylvania Wednesday talking about how frustrated some African Americans with being taken for granted by Democrats, and how much Hispanics wanted the country to deal with immigration issue.

He hung out at Lincoln University, the historically black university which counts among its alumni, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and Kwame Nkrumah. Then Mehlman did an event in Kennett Square described by one reporter as a pep rally with Hispanic leaders. Both events were in Chester County, in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, which has seen a boom in its immigrant population partly to retain its title as "mushroom capital of the world." “One thing I hear a lot from people is that a lot of folks think that Democrats take the African-American vote for granted,” Mehlman told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ben Lowe. The chairman also allowed this observation: “What I picked up at the Latino event is that people recognize the importance and need of fixing the immigration system.”

But Mehlman, who earlier in the week had described Hillary Clinton as too angry to be elected president, may be having a little emotional crisis of his own. His mere presence was a huge show of anxiety about what will happen in November, because the real reason Mehlman was in the Brandywine Valley is what Republicans are picking up in the polls. In the particular case of Pennsylvania, their two-term incumbent senator and onetime wunderkind, Rick Santorum, is trailing badly in the polls, down by a double-digit margin to State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., whose fervent pro-life position dismays a lot of Democrats, but completely robs Santorum of the issue he has used most often to separate himself from the opposition.

Elected to the Senate in 1994 at age 34, Santorum is the absolute embodiment of the modern conservative movement and its hold on the GOP. Casey is the son of the late governor, Bob Casey Sr., whose anti-abortion stand is often blamed for the controversial decision by Bill Clinton to deny him a speaking role at the 1992 Democratic convention. And even now the younger Casey is likely to take as much heat from some in his own party as he does from the GOP, but the great debate about where Casey fits in as a Democrat, is the essential interior debate that Democrats are having with themselves these days.

What all of this adds up to, is that the Pennsylvania Senate race will headline the contest for control of the Senate this fall, and for now, Mehlman can’t like what he’s picking up there, or anywhere else for that matter: In the three big three industrial swing states --Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- GOP incumbents are trailing or in tight races, suffering at the hands of poor approval ratings for their president.

But Pennsylvania is a special problem because over the last four presidential elections it has become increasingly Democratic, which will make it difficult for Santorum to rely on President Bush to help get him over the top. Mehlman says that the RNC will have 20 full-time staff in the state working on the Santorum race and the contest for governor, which is shaping up as a face-off between former Pittsburgh Steeler wide-receiver Lynn Swann and the incumbent Democrat, and former DNC chair, Ed Rendell.

For Republicans to have any chance of winning statewide in Pennsylvania, they have to offset the huge deficit they face in Philadelphia. Bush lost Pennsylvania in 2004 by 144,000 votes out of 5.7 million cast. He lost Philadelphia by 412,000.

The way Republicans have traditionally offset the Philadelphia Effect is to focus on the Philly suburbs, particularly the Republican strongholds like Chester and Bucks counties. The problem is that a lot of the GOP’s suburban support was driven by an anti-Philadelphia grievance that is no longer as intense as it once was.

Rendell was so popular as a reform mayor of Philadelphia, even in the ‘burbs, that he managed to overcome the intense statewide antipathy to the big, troubled city to win the governor’s race in 2002, one of the only things Democrats had to cheer about that year. So having Rendell on the ballot this November, even though he’s been in trouble with voters for some tax initiatives, is not going to aid the GOP strategy in the western suburbs. Which means Santorum is running uphill the whole way, and that is hard to do from behind.

And the last time a Republican senate candidate faced such restless electorate in Pennsylvania was in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, resigned the Justice post to take on Senator Harris Wofford, appointed by the elder Casey after the death of John Heinz.

Wofford talked about healthcare as his main issue and thumped the better-known Thornburgh. And many believe, set the stage for the Clinton win over Bush 1992, if only because James Carville and Paul Begala managed that campaign.

What if another GOP Senate loss in Pennsylvania paves the way for yet another Clinton presidency? Angry will probably not even begin to describe Mehlman then.

Terence Samuel is a political writer in Washington, D.C.

© 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc."

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