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Conditions Unfavorable To Barletta’s Chances

September 16, 2018

Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race has U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Hazleton, challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Casey, a Scranton Democrat. While Casey and Barletta are the names on the ballot, President Donald Trump is the issue in the race. Barletta has been joined at the hip with Trump on policy since becoming a very early supporter of him during the 2016 campaign. Consequently, Barletta is perceived as one of Trump’s acolytes while Casey has been one of his strongest critics. At the moment Barletta isn’t doing too well. The RealClearPolitics polling average has him down about 15 points. Let’s consider why Barletta isn’t doing better. He is a four-term incumbent congressman from the old 11th District, which extends from the Poconos to southeast of Harrisburg. He’s fairly popular in the district. He was seriously considered by the Trump administration for secretary of labor and Trump strongly supports him. Barletta is far behind in spite of these qualities. His plight owes to the convergence of a virtual avalanche of political forces that threaten to wreck his candidacy. His problems start with his opponent. He competes against a storied name in state politics, the scion of a near-legendary former governor. Casey has run five times statewide for two separate offices since 2004, including primary elections, winning each in a landslide. He is formidable. But Barletta’s troubles run much deeper than Casey, offering a case study about what matters when running for statewide office. The political resources any candidate needs for success are well-known. One of them is high statewide name recognition, which is a powerful predictor of electoral success. Another is timing. No one relishes running in a midterm year as a member of the president’s party, which usually takes it on the chin. The president’s popularity is also important. Candidates of the administration in power almost always do better the more the president is liked and his job performance is strong. Then there is money. As a challenger you would want either deep-pocket supporters or the ability to raise funds personally — preferably both. Policy matters too: Running on issues popular with voters is a big advantage. Particularly important would be having a popular “signature” issue associated with your candidacy — one issue you are well known for. Other assets include experience in statewide campaigns and being affiliated with the majority state political party. These are major political resources any challenger would want, especially running against a well-entrenched incumbent. It also explains why Barletta is running 15 points behind Casey in the polls. “Name recognition,” or more precisely, lack of it, illustrates Barletta’s challenge. Ominously, his name recognition is about 45 percent; that means half of the state’s voters have never heard of him. What about presidential popularity? In Pennsylvania, Trump‘s approval rating of about 38 percent is not good for Republican candidates. There is a midterm problem — during midterms senatorial challengers of the president’s party beat incumbents 9 percent of the time — and lose 91 percent of the time. Money doesn’t augur well for Barletta, either. Casey has outraised him by 7-to-1. Perhaps worse, often-influential national Republican political action committees won’t put significant funds behind Barletta. Issues also look problematic for Barletta, whose record is strongly conservative in a state fairly described as center-right. Most precarious for him is immigration, his “signature issue,” where he positions hand-in-glove with the president. About one-third of Pennsylvanian’s approve while almost 60 percent disapprove of the Trump/Barletta immigration stances. Barletta’s immigration policies are particularly unpopular in the voter-thick Philadelphia suburbs. Barletta also doesn’t score well in other important electoral assets, such as statewide experience, or running as the major party candidate. He has never run statewide and his Republican Party has about 815,000 fewer reregistered voters than Democrats. Can we then say unequivocally that Barletta will lose? No, elections are unpredictable and electorates even more so. But we well remember “underdogs” who win because they are rare exceptions. The only rare exception about this race so far is the unusual combination of forces arrayed against Barletta — low name recognition, bad timing, an unpopular president, feeble fundraising and weak issue messaging. Indeed, Barletta finds himself caught in a perfect storm: a confluence of hostile political winds relentlessly battering his campaign, making him the wrong candidate in the wrong race at the wrong time. It’s not hard imagining Barletta winning other races in other years. It’s just hard to imagine that happening this year.

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