Elections
Sen. Robert Casey Jr. D-Pa., speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)  Sen. Robert Casey Jr. D-Pa., speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)   

Pennsylvania Senate race becomes competitive

Photo of Alexis Levinson
Alexis Levinson
Political Reporter

The Pennsylvania Senate race has flown under the radar for most of the election cycle, but new polling suggests that the race between Republican Tom Smith and Sen. Bob Casey could become competitive.

A CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found political newcomer Smith trialing Casey by a mere six points. It is the third poll in two weeks to show the race moving into single digits. That’s a big improvement for Smith, who trailed Casey by 19 points in two late August polls. The last CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll at the end of July had Casey ahead by 18 points.

The gain is likely in part due to Smith stepping up his game on television, where his ads are running more than twice as often than Casey’s ads. Smith, a businessman worth between $60 and $70 million, according to Politics PA, is self-funding his campaign, and he is using that money to go up on the air. He is running ads all over the state — including in the expensive Philadelphia market.

Smith campaign Manager Jim Conroy attributed gains in the polls in part to the “sustained television presence,” but also to the what he called the campaign’’ success in defining Casey as a liberal.

“We’re starting to sort of dispel this myth that Casey is a moderate,” said Conroy, saying Casey “votes with the administration and party leaders 95 percent of the time,” on issues like the Affordable Care Act, raising the debt ceiling, and the stimulus, among others.

Casey is still favored. A sitting senator and the son of a popular former governor, he has statewide name recognition. Though the Washington Post changed its ranking to be slightly more favorable to the Republican, the race is still ranked “lean Democrat,” having been moved from “solid Democrat.”

A Democratic strategist following Senate races expressed skepticism that the new poll was anything other than an outlier or Smith “hitting his ceiling early”.

“This is a state that isn’t in play at the presidential level for a reason – it’s blue,” the strategist said. “Tough for a generic tea party Republican to really make inroads in a presidential year.”

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said she was also skeptical of the latest poll numbers, and said that for now, she would keep the rating of the race where it was — strongly Democrat.

She predicted that if Casey started keeping up with Smith in advertising, he could jump back out in front.

Neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is on the air in Pennsylvania, and Obama is running ahead in the polls.

Follow Alexis on Twitter