Friday, May 05, 2006

Pennsylvania Senate Race

Is Rick Santorum vulnerable? He's one of the most socially conservative Senators in the nation, and one of the most powerful. He's a relatively young man who could have a long career in government ahead of him, perhaps culminating in a ride up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House one January. The very idea makes some people shudder.

But this year, people are talking like he can be beaten. It's going to be a hellacious year for incumbents in Pennsylvania (more on that below), and Santorum is very close to a highly unpopular President Bush.

The things about him that enrage people on a national level, however, are not necessarily the ones doing the most damage at home. Santorum's image has taken some major dirt-bombs since the last election. The biggest controversy erupted over revelations that Santorum's five older children got cyber charter school educations and billed 80 percent of the tuition costs to Penn Hills School District outside Pittsburgh. The Santorums keep a legal address in Penn Hills but live most of the year outside Washington, D.C. That sort of thing may be technically legal, but it doesn't sit well.

The question among the anti-Santorum people is, who is best able to unseat him: A bland Democrat who is so "moderate" on social issues some people claim they can't tell him from Santorum? Or a fire-breathing, unapologetic leftist "progressive" history-professor-at-an-arts-college, a Wellstone-Feingold-Boxer Democrat who calls for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and thinks isn't sufficiently hard-core.

Oh, it's going to be the boring moderate who gets the nomination. Have no illusions about that. But the backers of the fire-breather are justly proud of their grass roots -- the boring candidate was annointed by party leaders on the national level.

In one sense, this year's Senate race in Pennsylvania mirrors the political debates of the whole nation. Just as in 2004, when the blue-red map of the state's counties looked like a miniature of the national mosaic. But, as always, Pennsylvania politics remains a game with its own quirks.

I'm not going to tell you what to think about this, but here are some places to look to form an educated opinion. Here's an overview of the state's political situation, and here's an essay on the regional breakdown of the state (which James Carvill famously described as Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Alabama in between). Here's an "insider" look at the scoops and permutations.

Santorum you already know. Chances are, too, you already know whether you love him or hate him.

The boring Democrat who is almost certainly going to face Santorum this fall is Bob Casey Jr. According to this hopeful account from last year:

Casey, whose late father was a staple of state politics for a generation and a two-term governor, was recruited to run against the conservative Santorum primarily because of his anti-choice views. This is high irony given that the senior Casey clashed with national Democrats over anti-choice views. But as an anti-choice Democrat capable of tapping into Pennsylvania's socially conservative rural and blue-collar vote its urban bloc, many Democrats blissfully predict Casey Jr. will run Santorum ragged. And Democrats have some good reasons to be hopeful.

Santorum seeks reelection in a state that twice went to Bill Clinton, then to Al Gore and last year to John Kerry. A quarter of the state's population is 55 or older (only Florida has a higher percentage of elderly) at a time when the president and his Social Security agenda, which Santorum has loyally backed, slip in national polls. Early in-state polls show Santorum lagging behind Casey. A Franklin & Marshall College poll this month has Casey up seven, and a Quinnipiac University poll released July 13 has him ahead by 11 points.

The numbers are down since then, but Casey still holds a lead. Casey is not entirely as passionate for pro-life causes as his father was. That probably won't hurt him in the ballots, but some people have noticed.

The fire-breather who is tilting at Casey's windmill is Chuck Pennachio -- yes, it's pronounced "Pinnochio." Great name for a politician, eh? He's a progressive warrior all the way. But apparently not a lot of progressives who insist the majority in America really thinks as they do are unwilling to put their money on it. Even at Democratic Underground his candidacy got a warm welcome, but not much more. It's an interesting thread. Democrats still smarting from Kerry in 2004 are wary of an anyone-but-Santorum trap.

There's a second Democrat in the race, an old-school conscience liberal named Alan Sandals -- as in hippie footwear -- a name, if possible, less appealing than "Pinnochio" to coal-country Reagan Democrats. He does, however, proudly carry the endorsement of the Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania is the cradle of moderates. Bill Scranton was a patrician pro-business Republican who governed the state in the early 1960s who made "sweeping reforms in the state's education system including creation of the state community college system, the state board of education, and the state Higher Education Assistance Agency." He was pressed into service on the national level in 1964 by moderate Republicans desperate to stop Barry Goldwater's conservative juggernaut.

When you get inside the state lines, you feel the undercurrents. One is the Casey family history. Casey is the son of Bob Casey Sr., our governor in the late '80s and early '90s. If you aren't from Pennsylvania, you'll probably remember him mainly because 1. he had eyebrows like an ayatollah, and 2. he was the pro-life Democrat who wasn't given a speakers' slot at the Democratic convention in 1992.

And Casey Sr. is actually somewhat responsible for Santorum. His personal commitment to his anti-abortion beliefs was so strong that he never would endorse a candidate who saw abortion as a right. Santorum occupies the "non-Philadelphia" Senate seat in the state's delegation. It had been locked up by H. John Heinz, the scion of the Pittsburgh food company family and a classic moderate Republican.

Heinz died suddenly and tragically in a helicopter crash in my kid sister's elementary school yard. His widow married John Kerry, and a special election was held to fill the Senate seat. Dick Thornburgh, a fairly moderate Republican ex-governor, treated it as a coronation of himself, and was swamped by an old JFK liberal, Harris Wofford, who ran on public frustration over lack of available health care coverage (always a big issue in blue-collar Pennsylvania).

Wofford's stunning upset opened the door for Bill Clinton's presidential victory. But when Wofford came up for re-election, the health-care issue had gone cold, killed by the reaction against Hillary-care, and Governor Casey refused to campaign on Wofford's behalf because of Wofford's support for abortion. That allowed Santorum, whom the editorial editor of the Philadelphia "Daily News" had described as "scarier than a zombie triple feature," to bull his way into a Senate seat he never earned or deserved.

So there's family issues involved. There's also a furious spirit of anti-incumbency afoot in Pennsylvania this year, due to the shenanigans of the state legislature voting itself a pay raise in a way that enraged voters who saw it as a crude cash grab, which, in part, it was.

The politicians hoped the voters would get over it. They have not. And now veteran legislators from both parties with formerly safe seats suddenly find themselves in hot primary races. Some have gone groveling and apologizing. Others are trying to ride it out. Some of the challenges are flat-out wackos; others are serious.

But the likely result is that a great many people who turn up at the polls in Pennsylvania in November will be there with one thought in mind: sweep the bums out. And even though federal legislators like Santorum had nothing to do with the pay-raise debacle, they may get caught up in the anti-incumbent backlash. My guess is that it will cost incumbents, even at the federal level, a good 5 or 7 points.

Which means both Democrats and Republicans know Santorum, through his own actions and through no fault of his own, is as vulnerable this year as he ever has been, or ever is likely to be again for a long time.