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Could Democrat Bob Casey be facing the upset of the year?

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The candidates

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. is seeking his second term in the U.S. Senate. The son of late former geovernor, Bob Casey Sr., he previously served two terms as Pennsylvania Auditor General and as Pennsylvania State Treasurer. Challenging him is Tom Smith of Armstrong County, a businessman who made millions in the coal industry. Smith, a long-time backer of Republican causes, founded an Armstrong County Tea Party group in 2009. Relying largely on his own money, he outspent his primary opponents, knocking out the Republican establishment's more moderate choice, Steve Welch. 

A Libertarian, Rayburn Smith, is also on the ballot, though he has not campaigned or raised money.

Supporters

Smith has been backed by Tea Party organizations and other ideological groups; Casey's endorsements include unions and some environmentalists.

 But while Smith has raised $19.6 million in campaign funds to Casey's $12.5 million, he himself contributed 86 cents of every dollar in his campaign fund. With access to his own millions, Smith has been able to launch an aggressive campaign portraying Casey as "Senator Zero." By mid-October, according to data collected by ProPublica, Smith had spent more than $1 million in TV ads compared to Casey's mere $78,000. And it may be paying off. Polling is all over the map, with some recent polls having shown a double-digit margin between the two, but the respected Quinnipiac University poll recently showed the two candidates in a statistical tie.

Plays well with others?

Casey has pulled off a rare feat by getting the endorsement of both of Pittsburgh's local dailies. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review lauded Casey's "congenial" manner in working with Pat Toomey and others, and added, "We prefer the Democrat we know to the Republican of convenience." Similarly, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette worried that in comparison to Casey, Smith would prove "obdurate" and "unyielding," and groused that he "refused to meet with newspaper editorial boards" or answer questions about his agenda.

Reproductive rights

Both Smith and Casey are pro-life. But Casey has not endeared himself to anti-choice groups; he stuck up for Planned Parenthood last year during an effort to cut funding for its non-abortion women's health services. (Planned Parenthood gave Casey's legislative record a 44 percent rating this past session.)  

Smith has a staunch anti-choice position, opposing even exceptions for rape and incest. This summer, Smith's fumbling answer to a question about abortion caused controversy, with Smith appearing to assert that, from a father's perspective, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy could be just as traumatic as pregnancy resulting from rape. 

Social Security/Medicare 

Smith favors the partial privatization of Social Security, allowing younger workers to invest some of their Social Security tax on their own. He also backs a Medicare plan — similar to those proposed by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — in which seniors would receive a subsidy to help pay for private health insurance. But there are doubts about whether such subsidies will keep pace with rising health-care costs. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that if a plan like Romney/Ryan were in place now, six out of 10 seniors would be paying more. And while Smith pledges that seniors could remain with the current Medicare program, a similar proposal drafted by Ryan would require those seniors to pay more too. 

Casey has castigated Smith's proposals, but he's offered few specifics about how he would shore up the systems, which face funding shortfalls. Casey does note that his vote in favor of "Obamacare" helps shore up Medicare by imposing cost savings on providers, and levying a tax on high-earners. Smith staunchly opposes Obama's health-care overhaul. 

 

Budget/taxes

Smith wants to cap federal spending at 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. (Last year, spending was around 24 percent of GDP.) Smith proposes saving money through a hiring freeze, abandoning earmarks and culling social-welfare recipients who "exploit the system." But Smith regards defense — the largest category of federal spending — in a special category: "The emphasis should not be on how much to cut defense, but rather how much is needed to defend the country," his campaign asserts.

Smith says he wants to replace the tax code with a flat tax, retaining some deductions for lower-income workers. But details are scarce — Smith hasn't even cited what rate the tax will be — and many economists say such plans defy simple math: It's unlikely to be revenue-neutral unless middle-class and poor earners contribute more.

For the most part, Casey has supported Obama's effort to extend Bush-era tax cuts on the middle class, while allowing them to expire for the wealthiest. Casey, though, would extend tax cuts for up to $1 million in earnings, rather than the $250,000 level supported by Obama. He has focused less on deficits than Smith, though he boasts of having "voted for a trillion dollars in spending cuts" — a reference to his support of a 2011 compromise to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cuts over 10 years. 

Energy

Casey has walked a fine line on energy issues. On the one hand, he supports federal grants to help states invest in natural-gas powered vehicles — and money for training workers for jobs in the natural-gas business. But he's also pushed for the FRAC Act, which requires additional disclosure of chemicals used in natural-gas "hydrofracking." Casey has advocated for investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar, while also supporting so-called "clean-coal technology."

Smith, meanwhile, says the FRAC Act "threatens the growth of [the natural-gas] industry." Such oversight, he says, should be left to the states. Smith opposes government investment in renewable energy, and his energy policy relies heavily on allowing gas and oil drilling on federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

A look ahead

A debate, likely the only one in the race, will be held between Casey and Smith Fri., Oct. 26, at the Philadelphia studios of WPVI-TV. Pittsburgh viewers can watch on WTAE Channel 4 at 5 p.m. on Sun., Oct. 28.

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