Five Republicans battle in April primary to oppose Sen. Casey in fall
April 8, 2012 8:45 PM
David Christian, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
Joe Vodvarka, Democrat, is running against Sen. Casey in the primary.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey
By Tracie Mauriello Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Everyone, it seems, wants Bob Casey's job.
Who wouldn't? The U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has one of Washington's most sought-after offices outside the White House.
His third-floor space in the Russell Senate Office Building was once occupied by the young Sen. John F. Kennedy. Four 8-by-10 shots on the wall show that Mr. Kennedy's desk was in the spot now reserved for office visitors who perch on a yellow couch to meet with Mr. Casey.
The office space, though, doesn't go with the job. Offices are assigned by seniority. Mr. Casey got the coveted spot when its prior occupant, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., took over Joe Biden's office when the Delaware senator became vice president.
That's something Steve Welch, Tom Smith, Sam Rohrer, Marc Scaringi, David Christian and Joe Vodvarka ought to know.
The five Republicans and one Democrat -- Mr. Vodvarka -- are on the ballot to unseat the one-term U.S. senator from Scranton. John Kensinger wants a shot, too. The Bedford County pharmacist is running as a write-in candidate after failing to collect enough signatures to appear on the Republican primary ballot.
Recent polls show no clear frontrunner in the Republican contest, but indicate that Mr. Casey would beat any of them if the general election were held today.
Mr. Casey won the seat in 2006 by defeating Rick Santorum by the largest margin for any incumbent Republican senator in state history. The win also made him the first Pennsylvania Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate since 1968.
Now the GOP wants to reclaim the seat.
The campaign was amiable at the start. Mr. Smith, 64, hosted Mr. Scaringi, 41, at his Armstrong County farmhouse when the latter was trying to drum up support from a tea party group and said he would welcome him again. A few weeks ago, the candidates were hard-pressed to say anything disparaging about each other, but that's been changing as the April 24 primary approaches.
During a debate last week, opponents blasted Mr. Welch and Mr. Smith for switching parties. They attacked Mr. Rohrer for a controversial 2005 statehouse vote -- later repealed -- to give lawmakers and legislative staffers hefty raises. And Mr. Christian noted that a company Mr. Welch owned applied for a $600,000 state loan while Gov. Ed Rendell was in office.
Only Mr. Scaringi stayed out of the fray, the Philadephia Inquirer reported.
Party stalwarts believe Mr. Welch is the candidate who can beat Mr. Casey. He's the who has the backing of both the state committee and Gov. Tom Corbett, the party's top Republican.
Mr. Welch has been a mechanical engineer, developer of vaccine-manufacturing systems, owner of an education technology company, author and founder of DreamIt Ventures, which helps entrepreneurs launch new products.
He's a pro-life, pro-gun candidate who believes government is too big, the tax code is too unwieldly and the Department of Education is too powerful.
While his Republican challengers largely espouse the same views, Mr. Welch, 35, believes he's the only one with the right mix of experience and acumen to effect meaningful change.
"We've got too few people in Washington that have ever done anything in real life. They just don't understand how the economy works," Mr. Welch said. "Bob Casey is a good example of somebody who passes bill after bill that has created so much uncertainty that it's hard for people to add jobs."
His work with DreamIt Ventures allows him to see start-up businesses' challenges close up, he said. The enterprise supports companies as they develop, test and market new products.
"I understand how these laws affect business," he said.
If there's one thing he's more passionate about than business, it's education. That's why he created KinderTown, an aggregator of educational computer and tablet applications for children.
"I would argue that all the good things in life come from good education and all the bad things in life come from bad education," said Mr. Welch.
He supports school choice and wants to repeal President Bush's signature education policy, No Child Left Behind, because it encourages teaching to the test, takes control from local school districts and fails to support different teaching and learning styles.
Mr. Rohrer, meanwhile, is known for his statehouse fights for fiscal restraint that included a failed battle to eliminate school property taxes and a successful effort to provide tax credits to businesses that provide scholarships for private school tuition.
While he chose home schooling for his own six children, Mr. Rohrer says he believes in strengthening the public school system while providing choice for all families.
David Christian is hoping voters see has decades of military service and civic contributions as evidence he'd make a good lawmaker.
The Bucks County resident rattled off his accomplishments in a recent telephone interview. The youngest American officer in the Vietnam War, he was wounded in battle and temporarily paralyzed but went on to run in the 1980 New York City Marathon. In between, he finished law school in 19 months and assisted the Reagan administration in crafting legislation aimed at helping veterans find work and receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now he wants to play a broader role as a U.S. senator focused on creating jobs, bringing soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan, reducing gas prices and eliminating regulations that energy companies find burdensome.
He isn't afraid to compromise to get those things done.
"I can walk across the aisle," said Mr. Christian, 62. "You have to be able to move a little to get your objective. If you want to have a polarized nation, you can do that, but we need people who can get things done in Washington, D.C."
In 1994, Mr. Christian narrowly lost the Eighth District Congressional race to incumbent Rep. Peter Kostmayer. He mounted another challenge two years later, that time losing by 15,000 votes.
In Armstrong County, Mr. Smith, who operated a coal company for a decade, was inspired to run for office by thoughts of the future for his six children, four of whom he and his wife Saundy adopted after the children had spent five years in a series of Texas foster homes.
"I just want a future for them. That's the biggest reason I'm running," Mr. Smith said in a recent telephone interview. "I was fortunate to live the American dream -- starting my own coal mining business in the mid-'80s -- and I think that dream is being diminished with each passing year because of government regulations."
He said Mr. Casey supports too such spending and too many regulations.
"He has voted for the stimulus bill, cash bailouts, Dodd-Frank [Wall Street reform bill] and raising the debt ceiling," Mr. Smith said. "I feel it's imperative that we send him to the private sector and get some good people in the Senate."
A win would set up Mr. Smith to play the lead role in the real-life remake of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 movie about the travails of a politically inexperienced freshman in Congress.
"That's not a totally unpleasant thought," Mr. Smith said. "I'm just a citizen candidate. I'm a citizen who got fed up, and I have the wherewithal to run and a lot of people supporting me."
He does have just a touch more political experience than the movie's title character; he served as a township supervisor four decades ago.
Mr. Rohrer, 56, said the job requires more experience than that -- and that makes him the only suitable candidate for the nomination.
"None of these other guys have ever been in office before," the former state representative said. "These are individuals who are riding the wave of anti-Obama and anti-Casey sentiment, but they've never been in a position to ever cast a vote or ever to have public anger over what they said about an issue. There is no record for any of them."
He contrasted his own 18-year record in the state House, from 1993 to 2010, where he cast votes on hundreds of fiscal and social issues and drafted a state law that created tax credits for companies that provide scholarships to private schools.
"People know fully well where I stand and there's no question. They don't have to guess and wonder what I'm going to do when I go to Washington," he said.
Mr. Scaringi credits President Bill Clinton for his entry into politics. He saw Mr. Clinton's politics as so widely divergent from his own values that he stepped into the fray as a volunteer for Rick Santorum's U.S. Senate campaign.
Now, another Democratic president has inspired him to run for office himself.
He cites the perceived failures of the Obama administration -- and Mr. Casey's support of them -- as the main impetus for his decision to run for Senate.
"I feel compelled to go to Washington to stop the Obama-Casey agenda in its tracks and return the country to its first principles: limited constitutional government, personal responsibility and freedom," he said in a statement on his campaign website.
He insists he's not naïve about what's in store. As an aide to Mr. Santorum, Mr. Scaringi met with constituents and is familiar with the pull of special interest groups and with the wheeling and dealing that occurs on Capitol Hill.
"You have to maintain your fierce independence because you're going to be surrounded by people trying to pull you away from where you want to go and need to be," Mr. Scaringi said during a recent interview in Harrisburg. "For me, it's about what's the right thing to do for the country."
He left government service to open a law firm with his wife, but now is ready to return, this time in a more influential role.
"I feel like the country is falling apart, going through the worst economic period in years. I want to make the biggest and most significant impact I can to try to save the republic from bankruptcy and get the economy rejuvenated so people have jobs instead of what they have now, which is unemployment and despair," he said.
Joe Vodvarka, Democratic challenger
Mr. Vodvarka, Mr. Casey's Democratic challenger, hasn't made up his mind on a lot of key issues, and he says that's exactly why people should vote for him: he's open-minded and a down-to-earth person with no grand political agenda.
"I've never served [in public office] and that's an advantage," said Mr. Vodvarka. He said he'll be able to look at problems with fresh eyes and new ideas. The key issue for him is trade relations. He wants to impose higher import fees to discourage foreign companies from competing with domestic ones.
Mr. Vodvarka, 68, has no campaign machine and hardly any money -- especially compared to Mr. Casey, who had $4.4 million on hand in December when campaign finance reports were last due.
Mr. Smith raised $5.2 million as of December, all but $803,000 from his own pocket.
The other candidates had raised between $57,400 (Mr. Christian) and $1.1 million (Mr. Welch), as of December.
Mr. Vodvarka didn't file a campaign finance report because he hasn't raised any money, he said.
He's running his campaign out of the trunk of his car and has spent about $150 so far, all of it from his Social Security income. His 29-year-old son, Jesse, is his campaign manager and his wife, Patricia, is his secretary.
"We're couch potatoes -- my wife, my boy and me. You got three couch potatoes getting off their butts and deciding to do something," he said.
He knows he's an underdog, so much so that he's barely on the radar of the Democratic establishment.
"Joe Vodvarka? Who's that?" former Gov. Ed Rendell responded last month when asked about the challenger's chances of unseating Mr. Casey. "Never heard of him."
That doesn't bother Mr. Vodvarka. "I'm a nobody, but in this country I can come out and here try," he said.
Mr. Casey, 51, is focused on jobs and the economy. He's been trying to reduce the tax burden on the middle class while fighting against price-fixing in China that makes it harder for American businesses to compete, he said.
"When voters take a look at my record, they'll see it's a record of putting Pennsylvania workers and Pennsylvania businesses and Pennsylvania jobs first, and I'll be an independent senator just like I'd been an independent watchdog when I was state auditor," he said.
While he's confident in securing the Democratic nomination, Mr. Casey is anticipating a battle in the November general election.
"Whoever the Republican nominee is will be well-funded, and in a state like ours, statewide elections are usually close," he said. "I expect a close and tough election."