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Midstate Congressman Lou Barletta faces skeptics in U.S. Senate race

Written by Marc Levy/The Associated Press | May 21, 2018 5:32 AM
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U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate, waves to supporters after speaking during an election night results party, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, in Hazleton. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

(Harrisburg) -- Long before he got into politics, Lou Barletta was an aspiring professional baseball player who, he says, flunked a tryout with Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds because he couldn't hit a curveball.

Now that he's challenging two-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in the fall election, Barletta will need to hit a lot of curveballs, politically speaking.

There is no independent poll that puts Barletta within striking distance of Casey. The four-term Republican congressman hasn't received any outside help to boost his image or name, now just under six months until the general election. And he is nagged by questions about whether he is too closely tied to President Donald Trump to make his race about anything else.

Barletta is, after all, one of Trump's earliest backers in Congress and the man who made a name for himself for blazing strict -- and ultimately unconstitutional -- policies against illegal immigrants more than a decade ago as the mayor of the small city of Hazleton in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In Tuesday night's primary victory speech, Barletta, who got to Congress by beating longtime Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski in 2010, seemed to embrace the adversity.

"The media said that Donald Trump could not win in Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania sent Donald Trump to the White House," Barletta told the crowd. "I was also told that I would never be mayor and I was mayor for three terms. They also told me I'd never beat a 26-year incumbent and we beat a 26-year incumbent. And now they're saying that I'm not going to beat Bob Casey, and we're going to beat Bob Casey."

Barletta pinned the media as skeptics, but Republicans themselves are quietly skeptical of Barletta's chances.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Post that he believes nine states will decide the battle for Senate control: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

To some extent, Barletta's problem is the large number of battleground states for control of the Senate, now held by Republicans by the slimmest of margins, 51-49. That means competition will be stiff for campaign cash from the party's major donors.

Five states -- Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia -- where Democratic senators are running for re-election gave Trump a double-digit percentage win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016's presidential election. Those are big targets for Republicans, while Trump eked out a win in Pennsylvania of less than one percentage point.

Trump may deliver millions of dollars to help Barletta's campaign, but Barletta could still be hobbled without substantial outside help from other Republican super PACs like McConnell's.

While major Republican campaign-spenders consider where to spend their money, Barletta hasn't wowed anybody with his own fundraising: he had $1.3 million in the bank at the end of April, compared to Casey's $10 million.

Besides fundraising, Casey -- the 58-year-old son of former Gov. Robert P. Casey who has won five statewide elections -- has a list of built-in advantages.

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FILE PHOTO: Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

For one, Democratic voters are showing more enthusiasm for the November election, according to polls by Franklin and Marshall College and Muhlenberg College. Democrats also have a 5-4 registration advantage over Republicans that has helped Democrats win 18 of the last 24 statewide elections, including Casey's 2012 victory by more than 9 percentage points.

Plus, Casey has approval ratings that reflect no apparent weakness, backlash or scandal that is typically the undoing of an incumbent, pollsters say. Meanwhile, Barletta is so closely identified with Trump that the race may end up being a referendum not on Casey, but on a president whose voter approval rating right now is too low to help Barletta, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

Barletta insists he can appeal both to the blue-collar Democrats who helped Trump win Pennsylvania and the moderates who typically swing the state's elections.

Two-term Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, of suburban Philadelphia, said that, at some point, Barletta must send a persuasive message to moderate voters, for instance his experience starting a highway line-painting business as a young man or working in Congress on transportation infrastructure.

"He has a good story to tell," Costello said. "He needs to make sure he can tell it."

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