Tom Smith captures GOP nod to run against Sen. Casey
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KING OF PRUSSIA -- An aggressive series of campaign advertisements and an infusion of his own cash carried Armstrong County Republican Tom Smith to victory over four competitors Tuesday for the chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
Mr. Smith overcame the party endorsement and the gubernatorial backing of his primary challenger, Steve Welch of Chester County.
Mr. Smith, a former coal miner and father of seven, spent nearly a million dollars a month on television advertisements. Mr. Welch responded with his own attack ads.
Speaking to supporters, Mr. Smith referenced his blue-collar background as he called his primary victory the first step to replacing Mr. Casey in the Senate.
"Defeating an incumbent United States senator is a heavy lift," he said. "Back at the coal mines, we would say for jobs like this we need to bring in the big iron."
He rallied the crowd by portraying Mr. Casey as a backer of big government who is in lock-step with President Obama.
"With nearly half a million Pennsylvanians out of work, we cannot afford six more years of Bob Casey," he said.
The crowd cheered as he called for a repeal of the federal health care law, an expansion of drilling and an end to "President Obama's war on coal."
In a 10-minute concession speech late Tuesday, Mr. Welch said he would put differences aside and back Mr. Smith, and he asked his supporters to do the same.
"The differences in this race, I believe, were not great. We very much shared the same views. There were certainly differences in style and tone, but Tom is going to carry the torch here in Pennsylvania," Mr. Welch told about 50 supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom.
Mr. Smith finished with more votes than his nearest competitors -- Mr. Welch and former state Rep. Sam Rohrer -- combined. Army veteran David Christian of Bucks County and former U.S. Senate aide Marc Scaringi of Dauphin County trailed.
In the Democratic primary, Mr. Casey handily defeated Allegheny County spring manufacturer Joe Vodvarka, who ran a campaign with a staff of family members.
Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna said Mr. Smith's win calls into question the value of party endorsement, which used to be the most valuable commodity in statewide Republican primaries.
"The Republican party is not the same party it was 10 years ago," he said.
Joe Gale, a Smith campaign volunteer who is chairman of the Montgomery County Young Republicans, agreed.
"Typically in the past, endorsements carried a lot of weight. I'd think this might be a loss for the governor," said Mr. Gale, 24. "I would just say that the fact that Tom did this well unendorsed shows that we have a good organization and that Sen. Casey has something to worry about in the fall."
Mr. Rohrer said there were lessons to be taken from the primary: "One thing we've learned from this is that the machine is not all powerful," he said. "We also learned, unfortunately, that money does speak."
With a primary win under his belt, Mr. Smith's next task will be to make himself known to voters statewide, said Thomas Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University.
"Right now, only Republicans know him," Mr. Baldino said. "In the general election every voter will be paying a little more attention to the ads that are being run by the nominee as he introduces himself as the candidate in the general election."
Like incumbent Casey, Mr. Smith is pro-life, and pro-gun, but that's largely where their similarities end.
Mr. Smith wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which Mr. Casey supported. He supports school vouchers, which Mr. Casey opposes. He wants to reduce taxes while Mr. Casey recently sponsored legislation that would add a new millionaires' tax.
Democrats characterize Mr. Smith as a wealthy, out-of-touch Republican, but he prefers to think of himself as a "citizen candidate" who happens to have the resources to run for office.
Supporters like Mr. Gale prefer to think of him as their hope for the future.
"His whole thing is the American dream. As a young person it's important to me to have someone who looks to the future and realizes the American dream is in jeopardy for the future and who wants to do something about it," Mr. Gale said by telephone from Mr. Smith's election celebration at the Clarion Inn in Allegheny County.
First Published April 25, 2012 2:12 pm