Democrat Bob Casey led in the polls virtually from the moment he announced his candidacy to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum some 20 months ago. Nevertheless, analysts argued that the Republican — a skilled debater and a fierce campaigner — would find a way to close the gap and take the contest to the distance.
But in the end, the obstacles facing Republicans nationwide — ranging from the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq to a series of scandals embroiling incumbents — as well as Santorum's own combative style and personality, proved too much to overcome as Pennsylvania voters handed Casey a victory by an early-round knockout.
"Tonight, I believe in my heart that Pennsylvania is where the new direction for America begins," Casey declared in his victory speech at the Scranton Cultural Center in Scranton, Pa. Casey, 46, was joined on the podium with his wife of 21 years, Terese Casey, along with their four daughters and more than a dozen family members.
Casey — a socially conservative Democrat who opposes abortion, gun-control laws and gay marriage — will join the moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who is pro-choice, to represent Pennsylvania in the upper chamber.
Santorum — a two-term incumbent who stood to become the second most powerful politician in the Senate if both he and the GOP prevailed — moved rightward during his second term, becoming more closely associated with the Christian right and alienating many voters with contentious comments about women, gays and immigrants. His 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, proved equally controversial, arguing that mothers are better off out of the workforce and at home raising children.
Still, the 48-year-old senator had become known among pro-Israel advocates as one of the Jewish state's staunchest defenders in the Congress, as well an articulate voice about the dangers posed by radical Islam and a potential nuclear Iran. Many of Casey's supporters stated that the Democrat from Scranton would be just as forceful an advocate for Israel, and that on the bulk of issues, he was more in line with the Jewish community than his contender.
Already aware that Santorum had conceded, hundreds of Democratic supporters chanted "Casey, Casey" as the piped-in power chords of Van Halen's "Right Now" filled the hall, an austere neo-Gothic structure that once served as a Masonic Temple. Almost from the moment the polls closed, the anticipation of celebration seemed to build as people filed slowly into the room, and enjoyed butlered mini-tacos, potato pancakes and deli-style turkey sandwiches.
Once Casey took to the podium, the crowd continued to cheer as if it were the start of a rock concert, but soon the roar was quelled as Casey began reiterating the core themes of his stump speeches, including the need to raise the minimum wage, create better access to health care and find a way out of the quagmire in Iraq.
"What we must do together as Pennsylvanians and Americans is not going to be easy, it's not going to be a smooth path, but we have to chart a new course for all of America," he said.
According to the unofficial results posted by the Pennsylvania Department of State, Casey led Santorum 58 percent to 41 percent, with roughly 95 percent of the 4 million or so votes tabulated, a far higher discrepancy than the polls had indicated.
Casey may have concluded his speech several minutes past 11 p.m., but key races in Virginia, Missouri and Montana remained up in the air, as were several congressional races in suburban Philly.
As of press time, the Democrats had wrested control over the House, but it was not clear whether they had managed to take control of the Senate. In the Virginia race, an all-too-familiar scenario seemed to be emerging, with the prospect of a recount and weeks of wrangling over the outcome.
A New Direction
Casey's speech called for a new direction in America, and spent a good bit of time addressing Iraq, as well as promising that his victory would not lead to an end to the war on terror, using a phrase eschewed by Santorum, who referred to America's broadest foreign-policy and domestic-security challenge as a war against Islamo-fascism.
He also took a moment to pay a personal and political homage to his late father, former governor Robert Casey, who was famously shunned from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention for his pro-life views.
"It was consistent with Bob," said Robert Fox of Merion, referring to the speech, as he, along with clusters of people, milled about after Casey left the stage. Fox was among a group of about a dozen Jews who had traveled to Israel with Casey in 2005, and who had made the trek from the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh areas to Casey's home town in Lackawanna County.
"Even after it was over," noted Fox, "he continued to talk about the issues that he cared about."
An hour or so before Casey took the podium, Swarthmore resident Eve Klothen could barely contain her excitement, as she camped out in front of one of the larger television monitors followed the nationwide returns.
"I really care about this race; this is critical for the country," said Klothen, also among the cadre of Jewish backers who traveled to Israel with Casey. "There couldn't be a better friend to Israel. You could just see it — he felt it in his soul."
Betsy Sheerr, an adviser to the campaign who also went to Israel with Casey and who serves on the board of trustees for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, sounded a similar note.
"Israel won big tonight, as did the U.S. Israel relationship," declared Sheerr, adding that she respected Santorum's eloquent warnings about the dangers posed by radical Islam and the Iranian regime, but felt that he had crossed a line by arguing that only he could work to protect Americans from such threats.
"Sen. Santorum has gone too far in his fear-mongering," she added.
Barton Hertzbach, a Center City lawyer who also sits on Federation's board, noted that he normally votes Republican, but felt that Santorum had become too extreme in his politics.
"Casey will not be a divider; he's not an idealogue," asserted Hertzbach.
While pundits will debate the national implications of the mid-term elections for days and weeks to come, Robin Kolodny, associate professor of political science at Temple University, argued that the race illustrated a definitive truth about Pennsylvania statewide politics. Mainly, Pennsylvania is a moderate swing state, and moderates are more likely to enjoyed continued success than staunch liberals or conservatives.
"I would watch how closely Bob Casey's voting record is going to match Arlen Specter's," stated Kolodny, reached late Tuesday night. "Specter is a pragmatic politician," and Casey will work to be perceived in a similar vein.
Summarizing voters attitudes toward the senator-elect, Kolodny said that "Casey doesn't seem like a risky proposition for people."