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With Casey At The Bat, Will Pennsylvania Republicans Once Again Swing & Miss?

Pennsylvania is often described as a swing state for November's presidential battle, as polls there show a very tight contest shaping up between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Of course, the Keystone State was also thought to be in play four years ago, when Obama easily dispatched John McCain by a 55-44 percent margin.

The fact is, Pennsylvania's reputation as an up-for-grabs state has been belied by the fact that it has voted Democratic for president the last five times. In 1988, the last time the GOP carried it, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by just two percentage points.

That's not to say, of course, that Pennsylvania won't be close in November.

On pace to become the first PA Dem senator to win re-election in 50 years.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
On pace to become the first PA Dem senator to win re-election in 50 years.

In the Senate races, however, it's been a different story. In the 17 Senate contests since Democrat Joe Clark was re-elected in 1962, the Republican candidate has won 15 times. Their only defeats: in 1991, when Harris Wofford took the seat of the late John Heinz (R) in a special election (only to lose it three years later), and in 2006, when Bob Casey unseated two-term Sen. Rick Santorum (R) by more than 17 points.

Casey effectively linked Santorum with the unpopular President George W. Bush. Republicans are trying to return the favor this year by tying him with Obama. But it's questionable whether that tactic will work. Barring the unforeseen, Casey is well positioned to become the first Senate Democrat from Pennsylvania to win re-election in 50 years. Five Republicans are competing in Tuesday's primary, but none is especially well-known, even in the GOP. And two candidates who are thought to be among the frontrunners do not have longstanding allegiances to the Republican Party.

Steve Welch, a wealthy entrepreneur and venture capitalist, is the choice of the party establishment, having won the endorsements of Gov. Tom Corbett along with two of the commonwealth's top newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Giving Welch a literal battle for his money is Tom Smith, who went from working in a coal mine to owning a lucrative coal company and who has dipped generously into his personal fortune to finance his campaign. Smith has been linking Casey to Obama at every opportunity. But Smith was a Democrat himself for decades and became a Republican only recently. That has led Welch to attack Smith as a faux Republican — an argument that seemingly would be effective had Welch not left the party himself in 2005 and voted for Obama in 2008, only to return to the GOP shortly after.

Former state Rep. Sam Rohrer, who boasted of a solidly conservative record during his 18 years in the legislature, is the only one of the five who has run statewide, having lost to Corbett in the 2010 gov. primary.

Also running are attorney Marc Scaringi, whose positions on the Federal Reserve and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are similar to that of presidential candidate Ron Paul; and Dave Christian, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who twice ran and lost to then-Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D), coming within an eyelash in 1984.

Republicans insist Pennsylvania is undergoing a conservative tide, pointing to the victories of Gov. Corbett and Sen. Pat Toomey in 2010. But the Casey name is still magic here — his late father, former Gov. Robert Casey, was a longtime dominant figure in the state — and the younger Casey remains popular with independents and moderates of both parties.

The main House primary to watch is in the new 12th District. With Pennsylvania losing one congressional seat this year, Republicans who control the reapportionment process threw two incumbent Democrats into the same district: Jason Altmire, who was first elected to Congress in 2006, having unseated GOP Rep. Melissa Hart; and Mark Critz, who won a special election in May 2010 to succeed his former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha (D). Most of the area and voters are from Altmire's current district. Polls show Altmire ahead, and he is vastly outspending Critz. But Critz boasts the endorsements of most of the labor unions (Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, Service Employees and AFL-CIO) as well as that of Bill Clinton, and says that labor's ground game will make up for his financial disadvantages. Both oppose abortion rights, gun control and the Obama healthcare bill.

Also, there is a multi-candidate GOP field in the 4th CD in the race to succeed Rep. Todd Platts (R), who is retiring.

Orrin Hatch button
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Ken Rudin collection

Hatch forced into primary. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah conservative who has been targeted for defeat by Tea Party conservatives unhappy with his record as of late, survived his first test at Saturday's Republican state convention. The Utah GOP requires candidates to win 60 percent of the delegates at the convention to win the party's nomination outright; if no candidate reaches that threshold, the top two advance to a primary. Against nine challengers, Hatch finished first with 59 percent of the convention vote, falling just short of the magic number on the second ballot by just 32 delegates out of more than 3,900. Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, 37, who won the backing from most of the other candidates eliminated on the first ballot, received 41 percent and will face Hatch in the June 26 primary.

Two years ago, GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, another Tea Party target, was denied renomination by finishing third at the convention. The seat was ultimately won by Mike Lee (R). Hatch responded to Bennett's defeat by actively wooing conservatives, many of whom insist the 78-year old senator has lost a step or three since he was first elected in 1976. Mitt Romney, who is widely popular in Utah, endorsed Hatch.

The Democratic nominee will be former state Sen. Scott Howell, who was trounced by Hatch in 2000. No Democrat has won a Senate race in Utah since 1970.

Gary Herbert, who became governor in 2009 after Jon Huntsman resigned to become President Obama's ambassador to China, also faced a challenge from the right at the convention, but won the nomination outright on the second ballot.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Time for two questions from readers:

Q: In the wake of Rep. Allen West's revelation that 78 to 81 Democrats in Congress are members of the Communist Party, I ask you: Has there ever been a member of Congress who at any time in his/her life belonged to the Communist Party? — Eli Taub, Los Altos, Calif.

A: For those of you not familiar with this story, West, a freshman House member from Florida, was asked earlier this month at a town hall meeting, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists or International Socialists?" West responded, "It's a good question. I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party. ... It's called the Congressional Progressive Caucus." West spokesperson Angela Melvin, asked by the Miami Herald for an explanation, said this:

"The congressman was referring to the 76 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies. The Progressive Caucus speaks for itself. These individuals certainly aren't proponents of free markets or individual economic freedom."

West further elaborated on Facebook, according to the Herald:

"I stand by the point of my comments. The press wants to write gotcha stories and talk semantics, but just look at the words and actions of the Progressive Caucus. You can call them socialist, Marxist, communist or whatever you want, but the point is, they oppose free markets and individual economic freedom, they want to redistribute wealth, and they want to see the nation fundamentally transformed. Their policies are destructive and I will stand up to them regardless of the critics. Members of this Caucus lavished praise on Fidel Castro following a 2009 visit, just to name one example. The Communist Party USA claims the Progressive Caucus as its 'ally.'"

U.S. Communists have been running for office for decades.  Above, the Party's presidential ticket in 1936.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
U.S. Communists have been running for office for decades. Above, the Party's presidential ticket in 1936.

As for your question: While candidates have been running for Congress under the Communist Party banner for decades, none has ever been elected. And I can think of no member of Congress who ever was a member of the Communist Party, either before or after (or during!) his or her tenure in office.

There of course have been numerous claims about the president being a Communist, and it hardly started with the current president. I recall Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, writing in the 1950s that Dwight Eisenhower was a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." And just last year, Rep. Paul Braun (R-Ga.) said this on the House floor:

"In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent his advisers, his close friends, his Cabinet people to go visit with Stalin in communist Russia to study what he was doing, what Stalin was doing there, so that FDR could replicate it here in the United States. And he did everything that he possibly could to do so."

Still, my guess is that no U.S. president has ever been a secret member of the Communist Party.

Q: What is the highest number of states that an eventual major-party nominee lost during the primary season? And did that nominee win the general election in November? — Travis Gray, Honolulu, Haw.

A: Barack Obama lost 20 primaries, not including the disputed contests in Michigan and Florida, to Hillary Clinton in 2008, and of course went on to win the White House.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. I was out of town last week, visiting our crack StateImpact team in Idaho at Boise State Public Radio, but you can click on the link below to hear the April 11 show.

April 11 TOTN Junkie segment

Similarly, I missed last week's "It's All Politics" podcast as well, but this link will get you the April 12 edition.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Monday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to the most recent contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Previous winner: Robert Marlow of Annandale, N.J.

Reminder: Don't forget to send your pick for Mitt Romney's running mate. Guaranteed huge prize for the lucky winner. Send it to politicaljunkie@npr.org.


April 24 — Primaries in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Congressional primaries in Pennsylvania.

May 8 — Presidential and congressional primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia. GOP Senate primary to watch: incumbent Dick Lugar vs. challenger Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Also: Wisconsin Democratic gov. recall primary.

May 15 — Presidential and congressional primaries in Idaho, Nebraska and Oregon.

May 18 — Filing deadline in Washington State. Just in case lame duck Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is thinking about it.

May 22 — Presidential and congressional primaries in Arkansas and Kentucky.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

This day in political history: Two days after the resignation of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu, a clear sign that the war was lost, President Ford urges the American people to put Vietnam behind them and not debate who was responsible for its conclusion. Ford, speaking at Tulane University, says, "I ask tonight that we stop refighting the battles and recriminations of the past," and he calls for a "great national reconciliation" (April 23, 1975).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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