SHELOCTA, Pa. — Atop hundreds of acres of lush farmland, a bold white sign directs visitors to the “Smith Complex” — the hilltop home of wealthy former coal company owner Tom Smith.
The rise of Smith’s campaign against Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is, indeed, complex.
While some of his fellow Republican Senate nominees sunk in September, Smith shrank Casey’s lead down to low single digits. A Quinnipiac University poll showed the Democrat with a 3-point lead this week — down from 19 points in June.
Today, Casey faces a race that’s more competitive than Democrats expected, and Smith will surely outspend him in the coming weeks. The Republican infused his campaign with an additional $10 million during the past three months, leaving him with more cash in the bank than Casey at the end of September.
“We just travel around and meet as many people as possible and stay up on the airwaves to get ourselves introduced,” Smith said last Sunday as he pulled into his driveway in his Ford F-250 XLT pickup.
Roll Call is changing this race rating to Leans Democratic. There’s an opportunity in the Keystone State for Republicans, but Casey is still favored to win — even if it’s by a smaller margin than most anticipated.
Casey’s campaign is closely aligned with President Barack Obama’s state operation. An early Obama backer, Casey spearheaded moving the state party staff to Philadelphia this cycle to strengthen the organization.
But during the summer, Obama’s Pennsylvania campaign dwindled as polls showed the state no longer in play. That leaves Casey in a precarious position, especially if Romney’s rise continues through October.
Democrats argue Pennsylvania was always competitive statewide and they expected polls to close.
“At its heart, Pennsylvania is still a purple state,” said Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant based in Pennsylvania. “It may not be as competitive this year as in previous years, but in a credible race no Republican or Democrat will ever win by 20 points. In a credible race, a big win is going to be considered 5 to 7 points. All that’s happening in the Senate race right now is a return to normal conditions.”
Last cycle, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) won his first term by a couple of points. But Casey, the son of the popular former two-term governor, came close to that 20-point margin when he defeated former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) by 18 points in 2006.
By most accounts, Smith is an unconventional nominee. The Keystone State boasts parochial politics, and Republicans often assume their best candidates hail from the populous southeastern corner.
But Smith lives on the opposite end of the state, an hour outside of Pittsburgh in a town with a population of a couple of hundred people. Smith stunned the party favorite, a businessman from the Philadelphia area, to win the nomination by spending $5 million of his own money.
“I have been exceedingly blessed,” Smith said. “This country gave me the opportunity to live a dream. Sandy and I did. We want to preserve that dream for future generations.”
Smith started his mining company in the mid-1980s, adding on to his business and home over the next few decades as he grew successful. Thirteen years ago, the Smiths added a gymnasium with a batting cage, kitchen and movie projector. They open it free of charge to the little leagues and church groups who use it frequently. One large local family started hosting Thanksgiving there after they outgrew their own dining room.
In his home, the father of seven proudly displays his kids’ volleyball trophies next to posed photos with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R). Several years ago, he adopted a family of four children from south Texas and raised them on his hilly farmland.
“Years ago, I ran 200 heads of beef and I was thinking about opening it back up once I sold the deep mines,” Smith recalled. “Then something about running for the United States Senate got in the way.”
The Smith Complex borders Indiana County, “The Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” Smith likes to point out the late actor Jimmy Stewart called that area home before he starred in the film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Democrats aren’t panicking yet. But they concede Casey shouldn’t have let Smith go unanswered on Philadelphia television for a week. Casey’s campaign pointed to additional polls that showed him leading by about 10 points.
“We have a full staff … and we have public polls showing an 11, 10 and 9 point lead,” wrote Casey campaign spokesman Larry Smar in a Tuesday email. “What we don’t have is a wealthy candidate who dropped 25-50% of his net worth into the race. As people tune in over the last three weeks they will learn more about how, as the Inquirer said today, ‘Smith has been parroting extreme right-wing points of view.'”
It’s unlikely the national party committees will spend money on this race, especially so close to Election Day. Currently, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not reserved any airtime in the state. National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer declined to say whether the party would spend money on Smith. But that’s not likely either, given the nominee’s personal wealth.
But at least one Pennsylvania Republican privately griped, “I think this is a better opportunity for the NRSC than some other races they are pursuing.”
Money or not, the NRSC is weighing in rhetorically. “Bob Casey’s campaign has been similar to his Senate service, underwhelming and unimpressive,” Jesmer wrote in an e-mail. “As a result there is no doubt Bob Casey is in real trouble.”