The Trump fac­tor in Pa. Se­nate race

The Review - - OPINION - By G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young

Pennsylvania is hold­ing a U.S. Se­nate race this year (if you hadn’t heard, you are ap­par­ently not alone). Con­gress­man Lou Bar­letta (R) is chal­leng­ing in­cum­bent U.S. Sen­a­tor Bob Casey (D).

While Casey and Bar­letta are the names on the bal­lot, Don­ald Trump is the is­sue in the race.

Bar­letta has been joined at the hip with Trump on pol­icy since be­com­ing a very early sup­porter and co-chair of Trump’s Pennsylvania 2016 cam­paign.

Con­se­quently, Bar­letta is per­ceived as one of Trump’s acolytes while Casey has been one of his strong­est crit­ics.

At the mo­ment Bar­letta isn’t do­ing too well. The RealClearPol­i­tics polling av­er­age has him down about 15 points.

Why Bar­letta isn’t do­ing bet­ter is a good ques­tion.

Af­ter all, the con­gress­man is a four-term in­cum­bent in his district (the old PA 11th which ex­tends from the Po­cono re­gions to south­east of Har­ris­burg). More­over, in the district he’s been fairly pop­u­lar, per­son­able, and with some ac­com­plish­ments.

He was se­ri­ously con­sid­ered for a ma­jor cabi­net post (La­bor) in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Pres­i­dent Trump strongly sup­ports him. In his youth, he was ac­tu­ally a de­cent enough base­ball player to get a ma­jor league try­out.

But Bar­letta is run­ning far be­hind in spite of these qual­i­ties. In­deed, Bar­letta’s plight owes to the con­ver­gence of a vir­tual avalanche of po­lit­i­cal forces that threaten to fa­tally wreck his can­di­dacy.

His prob­lems start with his op­po­nent. He is run­ning against a sto­ried name in state pol­i­tics, Sen­a­tor Bob Casey Jr., the scion of a near leg­endary former gov­er­nor.

Casey him­self has run five times statewide for three sep­a­rate of­fices in the past 15 years, win­ning all in a land­slide. He is a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent.

But Bar­letta’s trou­bles run much deeper than Casey, of­fer­ing in fact a case study about what mat­ters when run­ning for statewide of­fice in Pennsylvania. The po­lit­i­cal re­sources any can­di­date needs to run suc­cess­fully are well known.

“Name recog­ni­tion” or more pre­cisely lack of it il­lus­trates Bar­letta’s chal­lenge. Omi­nously, his name recog­ni­tion is around 45 per­cent; that means half of the state’s vot­ers have never heard of him.

Is­sues also look prob­lem­atic: Bar­letta’s over­all record is strongly con­ser­va­tive in a state fairly de­scribed as cen­ter-right. Most pre­car­i­ous for him is im­mi­gra­tion, his “sig­na­ture is­sue,” where he is po­si­tioned hand-in­glove with the pres­i­dent.

About one-third of Penn­syl­va­nian’s ap­prove while al­most 60 per­cent dis­ap­prove of the Trump/Bar­letta im­mi­gra­tion stances. Bar­letta’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies are par­tic­u­larly un­pop­u­lar in the voter thick Philadel­phia sub­urbs.

Alas for Bar­letta, he also doesn’t score well in other im­por­tant elec­toral as­sets, such as statewide ex­pe­ri­ence, or run­ning as the can­di­date of the ma­jor­ity party.

He has never run in a statewide race, and his Repub­li­can Party has about 815,000 fewer voter reg­is­tra­tions than the ma­jor­ity Democrats.

Can we then say un­equiv­o­cally that Bar­letta will lose his con­test with Casey?

No! Elections are un­pre­dictable and elec­torates even more so. Don­ald Trump is just the most re­cent prom­i­nent ex­am­ple stretch­ing back through Amer­i­can his­tory of “sure loser” can­di­dates that won on elec­tion day.

But we re­mem­ber so well the “un­der­dogs” that win be­cause they are the rare ex­cep­tion — and the only rare ex­cep­tion about this race so far is the unusual com­bi­na­tion of forces ar­rayed against Bar­letta — low name recog­ni­tion, bad tim­ing, an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent, fee­ble fundrais­ing and weak is­sue mes­sag­ing.

In­deed, Bar­letta has found him­self caught in a per­fect storm: a con­flu­ence of hos­tile po­lit­i­cal winds re­lent­lessly bat­ter­ing his cam­paign, mak­ing him the wrong can­di­date in the wrong race at the wrong time.

It’s not hard imag­in­ing Con­gress­man Bar­letta win­ning other races in other years. It’s just hard to imag­ine that hap­pen­ing in 2018.

G. Terry Madonna is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic af­fairs at Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege, and Michael Young is a former pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and pub­lic af­fairs at Penn State Univer­sity and man­ag­ing part­ner of Michael Young Strate­gic Re­search.

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