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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sen. Bob Casey braces for ‘toughest’ re-election battle yet in Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA — Democrats are facing a tough set of Senate races in 2024. From his perch in perhaps the nation’s most important swing state in recent years, Sen. Bob Casey argues his contest is a must-watch.

“It’ll be a close, tough race,” Casey told NBC News during a day shadowing him recently on the campaign trail. “But look, there’s a lot on the line every time. Every time I’ve run for public office in Pennsylvania, I’ve had to earn the vote and the trust of the people. And I got to do that, again.”

Pennsylvania dominated the political world in 2022 with the marquee Senate race between Republican physician Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman, who won. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s race got national attention, too. And former President Donald Trump’s fortunes rose in Pennsylvania in 2016, and then fell in 2020.

This time around, Casey’s race could decide control of the Senate, while a Trump rematch with President Joe Biden could decide who controls the Oval Office. And the issues voters most care about here — economic concerns, election integrity and abortion access, as well as Biden’s performance as president — reflect the list of national priorities, making the state a microcosm of the national landscape.

Overall, Casey says Biden has “done really well.” Asked to give the president a letter grade, he demurred, instead calling Biden “someone who has the basic integrity you’d want as a public official, someone who cares about what happens to families in their lives, can identify with the struggles that families have. And he’s tried, I think, working with people in both parties to get things done.”

While Biden’s poll numbers are hitting some of the lowest of his presidency, Casey called “some of that analysis” of the president “over-emphasized.”

“I think when people go to vote, they’re going to be asking both of us, ‘Which side are you on? Where do you stand?’” Casey said. “And when it comes to voting rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, I’m going to be on one side and my opponent’s going to be on the other.”

On the issue of abortion, Casey — who used to describe himself as a “pro-life Democrat” — explained how the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion, was a clarifying moment in a long-term shift.

“That was a moment where you had to decide one of two places that you wanted to rest your vote. Did you want to vote to ban all abortions, or virtually all abortions? Or did you not?” Casey said. “And I have never supported and will never support the Republican effort to ban abortions.”

It’s early — and early polls show Casey with a lead — but even after winning three terms in this purple state, Pennsylvania’s senior senator is bracing for this to be his toughest re-election yet— a combination of expecting a close Trump-Biden redux race and facing a well-funded opponent in Dave McCormick, who lost the GOP Senate primary to Oz in 2022 but is back with party backing and big fundraising.

McCormick, 58, a former combat veteran, is already making retail stops across the state, going after Biden — and by extension Casey — on foreign policy, the economy and the U.S.-Mexico border.

And Trump looks set to lead the GOP charge in the state at the top of the ticket. Casey, 63, said he didn’t how Trump would affect the Senate race, that it was “difficult to assess that.”

Though many of the issues in the two races will be the same, Casey repeatedly sought to separate his race — and his issues — from the presidential race.

On the economy, especially, Casey is seeking to strike a populist tone centered on corporate greed as an explanation for the inflation so-often complained about by voters.

Casey calls it “greedflation,” but he doesn’t care what term is used. “It’s perverse,” he said, offering an alternative explanation to folks seeing higher grocery store bills, “to take the cost of a product and jack it up, and then brag about it to your shareholders. And yet that family who has to go to the grocery store every week is paying the cost.”

And Trump’s running again brings fresh concerns about election security — especially amid his continued lies about how the 2020 election that he lost was stolen. In 2022, election denier Doug Mastriano was the state’s GOP nominee for governor, though he lost badly to Shapiro.

Casey is concerned about a revival of that denialism in 2024. “I do worry on a lot of different levels. Not just at the federal level, with rhetoric from right-wing members of Congress, but I worry at a very local level.” Specifically about election workers intimidated out of their jobs and replaced by what he calls “extremists.”

“That’s a direct and proximate threat to democracy,” Casey declared. “So we’ve got to win. Bottom line.”

He’s not the only Democratic senator who sees their race as a must-win amid the larger Senate dynamics. 

Arizona’s Mark Kelly, who faced his own tough races in 2020 and 2022, called Pennsylvania “ground zero for control of the U.S. Senate” while campaigning for colleagues at a VFW hall here.

“This isn’t like a race like Bob has had before,” Kelly said.

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