- Associated Press - Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pennsylvania Republicans who just last fall were celebrating a slew of congressional and state election triumphs have yet to put up a major challenger against first-term Democratic Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.

It’s a surprising turn for the Republicans in a key swing state that has been hit by job losses and in which President Obama’s popularity has slipped. Republicans last November swept to their biggest electoral success in Pennsylvania since 1994, in large part by blaming Democratic policies for the ailing economy.

The party picked up five U.S. House seats along with a fiercely contested Senate race as Patrick J. Toomey beat Democrat Joe Sestak for Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter’s seat. The Republicans also recaptured the governorship and control of both houses of the state Legislature.

As Labor Day nears and election season cranks up, Republicans said there’s still plenty of time to find a major challenger to Mr. Casey, who won his seat in 2006 by an 18-point margin over incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and is seeking a second term in 2012.

“I’m still very bullish about next year,” Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said in a recent telephone interview with the Associated Press. “We will have a top-flight candidate and we will conduct a vigorous campaign. I am confident that we will beat Sen. Casey.”

Mr. Casey said he “fully expects” to face a strong GOP challenger.

“It’s a very competitive state, so I have to be prepared for a tough race,” Mr. Casey told AP in a phone interview. “I can’t control any of that, so I just prepare.”

Mr. Gleason, who wasn’t naming names, said a big-name challenger could emerge in November and still mount the kind of campaign needed to take down Mr. Casey. Mr. Gleason said fundraising would be a key factor in the race, and while a strong challenge could cost $30 million, the election is still 15 months away.

“There’s plenty of time,” he said. “This is August.”

Several high-profile Republicans have already taken a pass on the race, but there’s been a flurry of trial balloons, including wealthy businessmen Steve Welch and Tim Burns. Marc Scaringi, a former Santorum aide, is already running but is seen as a long shot.

Mr. Gleason said that, early on, some strong potential Casey challengers balked after considering Mr. Obama’s 10-point win against John McCain in Pennsylvania in 2008 and Mr. Casey’s even wider margin two years earlier.

“But now as Obama’s polls get worse and worse, more and more people are looking at this race,” he said. “As the months tick by and the days tick by and the economy continues to worsen, all of a sudden this looks like maybe a better opportunity for people who maybe told me eight months ago they were not interested.”

Mr. Casey has been a strong Obama ally, supporting much of the president’s agenda, including the stimulus package and the health care overhaul.

Casey will live or die based on what Barack Obama does,” said Mr. Gleason. “If Obama loses, he’s toast. If Obama wins, he certainly has a better chance of being elected.”

Mr. Casey said he has heard those theories, but doesn’t buy it as far as Pennsylvania is concerned and his family name is seen by Democrats as another asset because his father was a two-term governor.

“The Casey brand is pretty well established,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. “That gives Casey some distance from the taint of Washington. That family brand of moderation and independence has stuck with the son and it’s part of the reason why he’s in fairly good shape now politically.”

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