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Sen. Bob Casey has more at stake this year than his own re-election.
As the reticent leader of Pennsylvania Democrats, the first-term Senator also serves as President Barack Obama’s top lieutenant in the vital Keystone State.
“I think the responsibility or the effort is heightened when it’s a presidential year,” Casey said in an interview last week. “It’s a little bit difficult when you’re also running. So that’s a challenge.”
Observers say that Casey, the son of a popular former governor who took over as the state’s highest-ranking Democrat after former Gov. Ed Rendell left office earlier this year, is up to the task. In the early ’90s, Casey’s namesake ruled Harrisburg with red-faced tenacity — the opposite of Casey’s low-key, monotone style. The late governor didn’t often get his hands dirty in state party politics, instead focusing on his opposition to abortion rights as his singular issue.
Casey doesn’t have that luxury — at least not this cycle. Although he is the heavy favorite to win re-election, he’s running against a Republican with significant financial resources while also balancing the demands of helping to ensure Democrats deliver the state for Obama.
“He’s the most senior Democratic official, and he’s taking it seriously,” Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) said in a June 1 interview. “These are not mutually exclusive — in fact, quite the opposite. They are very compatible — to make sure there is good state turnout, and that there is turnout for the president and for him, up and down the ticket.”
In the past two years, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s staff has quadrupled. To attract top political talent, party officials moved the bulk of the staff to Philadelphia, a much more desirable city for top operatives than its former base in the capital of Harrisburg.
Casey has played a role in all of this and personally helped to recruit the party’s challengers in the 8th and 18th districts, two targets for national Democrats this fall. He’s picked sides in primaries occasionally, such as backing Obama in 2008 and endorsing Rep. Tim Holden’s failed Democratic primary bid earlier this year.
But the soft-spoken Casey is hesitant to discuss his partisan activities in any detail. He only acknowledges the challenge of running a state party in transition all the way from Washington, D.C. — something his father never had to do.
“When you have a governor of your party, that governor has the capacity to be able to build a party, lead a party, more so than any Senator or anyone in the Congressional delegation,” Casey said. “When you have a transition to the governor of the other party, that creates certain challenges.”