After months of speculation, Rep. Lou Barletta has officially entered the race for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat. Assuming he wins the primary, he will be challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Bob Casey.
— Lou Barletta (@louforsenate) August 29, 2017
Sen. Casey is one of many top GOP targets next year as the party looks to bolster its Senate majority. The 2018 Senate map is one of the most favorable for Republicans in over a generation as Democrats are forced to play defense in most of the seats in play – many of them in states President Donald Trump won just last year. The only other GOP candidates in this race are a few local activists, businessmen and state representatives – making Barletta the most serious Republican challenger to date.
Barletta, currently the representative of the state’s 11th Congressional District, is by far the most able candidate to oust Casey. His political background and appeal to a specific block of voters prove this.
Pennsylvania played a pivotal role in Trump’s win last year. The president won The Keystone State by less than one percentage point over Hillary Clinton. Four years prior, President Obama won the state by over five points. The partisan shift was a decent swing in Trump’s direction and it was also the first time a Republican presidential candidate has won the state since George H. W. Bush in 1988. This upset was accomplished by a few Pivot Counties within Pennsylvania – counties that voted for Obama twice, but swung in Trump’s column.
There were three Pennsylvania Pivot Counties: Erie, Luzerne and Northamptom. A large swath of Barletta’s congressional district includes Luzerne County. His overall district has shifted more Republican over the years, and the arrival of Trump has hastened the process. This is important to point out because it indicates that Barletta appeals to the same type of Trump Democrats who ultimately decide the fate of statewide candidates.
The connection between the two men go even further. Like the president, Barletta is known for his strict approach to illegal immigration.
Beginning his political career as a member of the Hazleton City Council, Barletta had always been an immigration hardliner. As mayor, he vowed in 2006 to make Hazelton “one of the toughest places in the United States” for illegal immigrants. He introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, an ordinance that denied business permits to employers who hired illegals and issued fines to landlords who housed them (the law was subsequently thrown out in court). Despite taking strong positions on contentious issues – he was a popular Republican in a heavily Democratic city.
After unseating longtime Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski in 2010, Barletta took the immigration debate with him to Capitol Hill. He pushed legislation in Congress that would restrict federal dollars into cities that refused to work with federal authorities regarding illegal immigrants. In 2015, Barletta supported “Kate’s Law,” a bill that would jail illegal immigrants in the county who had already been deported.
Immigration, among other issues, was what led Barletta to support Trump’s insurgent presidential candidacy. He was one of the first members of Congress to endorse the real estate mogul, and he continues to be one of President Trump’s staunchest congressional allies. It comes as no surprise that Trump personally pushed Barletta to enter the Senate race.
2018 will be a midterm year. These elections tend to favor Republicans given the type of voter turnout that occurs during non-presidential elections. However, this will be the first midterm election since Obama has vacated office (the former president had a knack for energizing conservative voters). The game will be different now that Trump occupies the White House – the 45th president undoubtedly will play a huge role in this Pennsylvania campaign.
Defeating Casey will be no walk in the park. Casey has held elected office across the state since the late 1990’s – serving as auditor general and as treasurer. He is completing his second term in the Senate. His father, Bob P. Casey, had previously served as governor of the state.
Suffice it to say, the Casey name is a mainstay in Pennsylvania politics. Voters do appear to like him.
However, if there is one Republican in The Keystone State that can win this – it’s Barletta. He already appeals to the same type of Trump Democrats needed to win. He overcame a Democratic voter advantage in Hazleton to become the city’s mayor. He then thrived in a once-safe Democratic district to become a U.S. congressman.
Barletta enters the race at a time when Pennsylvania has experienced a political shift to the right. Trump and Pat Toomey (the other PA senator) overcame weak poll numbers and won against their Democratic challengers. The Pennsylvania GOP is now salivating at the chance to unseat both Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf – two Democrats who are up for re-election next year. You better believe national Republicans won’t be wasting the opportunity. They’ll be pouring money into this state.
Major forecasters don’t see much here yet. Inside Elections rates this race as leans Democratic and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates this as likely Democratic. Even Cook Political Report gives it a likely Democratic. However, I’d strongly suggest keeping an eye on the election rankings.
This race is about to get a lot more competitive in the coming weeks.