GOP lacks name recognition in Casey bid

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Feb. 10, 2012

It's any man's race for the Republican nomination to unseat Sen. Bob Casey.

But it appears few voters know any of the six men seeking the GOP nod, according to a Tribune-Review/WPXI-TV poll conducted Feb. 2 through Monday.

"This is a group of unknowns, even to Republicans," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Nearly three of four likely GOP voters -- 72 percent -- remain undecided on the Senate candidate they will choose in the April 24 primary, according to the poll of 500 Republicans conducted by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.

Former state Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County led the pack, with 10 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him. Trailing were Armstrong County businessman Tom Smith (8 percent), Philadelphia pharmacist John Kensinger (3 percent), Chester County businessman Steve Welch (2 percent), Camp Hill attorney Marc Scaringi (1 percent) and David Christian of Bucks County (1 percent).

A question asked of 800 Pennsylvania voters of all parties showed that 37 percent thought Casey, D-Scranton, deserves to be re-elected, 39 percent want a new senator, and 24 percent are undecided.

"This is perfectly common to see this high level of undecided vote at this point in the race," said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research. "Candidates are going to save money for the last three weeks of the race, when voters start paying attention. There's plenty of time to buy statewide name recognition."

Likewise, Rohrer campaign manager Zac Moyle said, "We aren't concerned. I don't think a lot of people are tuning in yet, and none of the campaigns have really ramped up yet."

Welch campaign manager Peter Towey agreed and was encouraged by the results. "Bob Casey is very beatable, and the Republican primary is wide open," he said.

Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in La Plume, thinks the push should be under way.

"If you're going to run for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent, you have to have high name recognition and be actively campaigning by now," Brauer said.

Brauer said Republican voters are distracted. Among things that are "sucking up oxygen" are the competitive GOP presidential race and confusion surrounding legislative redistricting.

It does not help that only one Republican candidate -- Rohrer, a lawmaker for two decades -- has any statewide political experience. He lost the gubernatorial nomination in 2010 to now-Gov. Tom Corbett.

Welch could benefit from last month's endorsement by Corbett and the State Republican Committee.

Smith campaign manager Jim Conroy acknowledged his candidate needs to boost his name recognition.

"Tom has the resources to do that, and the exciting takeaway is that 39 percent of people think a new person should be in Casey's seat," he said.

Welch and Smith can buy much-needed advertising to get their names in front of voters. Welch contributed $1 million of his own money to his campaign, and Smith has used about $5 million of his own money. To date, Smith is the only GOP candidate to run television ads.

"Those with deep pockets will fare better. A month to six weeks out, they are really going to have to have a barrage of political ads," said Joseph DiSarro, head of political science at Washington & Jefferson College.

Spokespeople for Kensinger, Scaringi and Christian could not be reached.

Although Casey has the name recognition, DiSarro said, he could be threatened because he has "hitched his wagon to President Obama." Records show he has voted with Democrats 90 percent of the time.

State Democratic party spokesman Mark Nicastre said Casey "is well-positioned, while Republicans face a wide-open and already contentious primary."

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