President Obama was in Scranton, Pennsylvania today to lobby for an extension of the temporary cut in the payroll tax. One other Democrat who was notably absent: Sen. Bob Casey.
Casey spokesman Larry Smar noted that Casey was not there because of votes on the defense authorization bill in the Senate. But even if his schedule had permitted him to attend the event, an appearance would have been fraught with political risk, considering the president's standing in the state. The way Casey -- who, like Vice President Joe Biden, is from Scranton, a blue collar area in a region that has been hamstrung by high unemployment -- navigates his relationship with the president will affect the way he is viewed, both in his home base and across the state, as he tries for a second term in the upper chamber in 2012.
According to a Quinnipiac University survey taken earlier this month, Obama's approval rating was underwater among Keystone State voters; 52 percent disapproved of the job the president was doing, with just 44 percent approving.
Casey, like many Democratic senators up for reelection, will not able to run too far away from the president. There is enough footage of the two of them to stock plenty of negative ads. His support for the stimulus and the president's signature health care law will be ripe targets for Republicans. And every time he is absent from a Pennsylvania event featuring Obama, the press -- this outlet included -- will take notice.
"There is no doubt that there is some concern in the Casey camp that they can't be too close to the president," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick. "It's going to be hard to extricate Casey from his relationship with the president, and the record is pretty clear that they have been close allies."
Democrats counter that the Casey name (his father served as governor, and Casey himself has also served as state auditor and treasurer) is strong, and in northeast Pennsylvania, voters know him independently of the national party.
"They grew up with him. Who he stands with on a stage isn't going to define who he is to them," said Democratic strategist Mark Nevins
But Republicans are honing in on reminding voters that Casey has supported much of Obama's agenda. Businessman Steve Welch
, a Republican running against Casey, released an almost six minute web video
earlier this week tying Obama to Casey.
"It's interesting what a difference almost four years makes, where the big announcement when the president was in the midst of his primary was a big secret announcement where he showed up with Sen. Casey in Scranton. Three and a half, almost four years later, apparently the senator is trying to run away from that relationship," said GOP strategist Brian Nutt
, who is working for Welch.
Obama lost by ten percent in Pennsylvania -- 55 percent to 45 percent -- to now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
in the 2008 Democratic primary. Clinton dominated in Lackawanna County -- where Scranton is located -- winning nearly 74 percent of the vote. But in the general election, it was Obama who was the victor in the Keystone state. He defeated Sen. John McCain
, R-Ariz., 54 percent to 44 percent. En route to victory, he won nearly 63 percent of the vote in Lackawanna County, reversing his fortunes from the primary.
But his diminished standing in the state coupled with rough unemployment figures are causes for concern for the White House -- especially in the blue collar areas in northeast Pennsylvania. For Casey, the region is also very important. Party strategists note that if a Democratic candidate can do well in the northeast, win the Philadelphia suburbs and run roughly even in the areas around Pittsburgh, it's good news for their chances of victory.
"For Sen. Casey, Scranton is going to be important, because not only is it his home base, but it is also a key part of that road map to victory for a Democratic candidate in a general election," said Nevins.
For Casey, there is a twofold silver lining, statewide. First, his numbers have been a bit better than Obama's -- a September Quinnipiac poll showed his approval rating stood at 46 percent, with a 48 percent plurality saying he deserves be reelected. Not ideal numbers, but not horrible, either. Second, no Republican challenger perceived as a major threat has surfaced in the race yet.
It will be a useful exercise to continue to watch how Casey and other Democratic senators up for reelection in 2012 navigate their interactions with the president. For Casey, Pennsylvania's presidential swing state status means that there will be many more opportunities to appear alongside Obama in the coming months. There will be times when votes or other scheduling issues won't prevent him from appearing with Obama, and when such opportunities present themselves, opponents will be waiting to pounce -- whether Casey shows up or not.