Santorum Fights for Survival in Pennsylvania Senate Race

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The Senate race in Pennsylvania is considered the No. 1 race to watch this year. Republican incumbent Rick Santorum trails in his bid for a third term. Ironically, the Democrats' best chance at gaining a Senate seat is with a pro-life, pro-Alito candidate.


The number one Senate race in the country this election year is in Pennsylvania. That's where Rick Santorum is currently trailing in his bid for a third term by double digits, further behind than any other incumbent senator seeking reelection. His likely Democratic opponent is State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., the son and namesake of a popular former Pennsylvania Governor who got the most votes in state history. With nine months to go before election day, NPR's Mara Liasson takes a look at a critical race in the Democrats' effort to win control of the Senate.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

There's no one in the Senate that Republicans will do more to keep in office, and Democrats will do more to defeat than Rick Santorum.

Santorum has been outspoken, some say to a fault, on his views on abortion, gay marriage, and other hot-button cultural issues. For instance, he once connected the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal to Boston's political liberalism, and he said that birth control is harmful to women, and that states should be allowed to outlaw it.

Santorum knows comments like these have become an issue in the race. Here's what he said at a state Republican committee dinner in Harrisburg.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): I've not always made it easy for you to get out there and work, that you've had to keep your heads down at times for things that I've said, or things that I've done. And I suspect you'll have a few of those instances between now and November. Gotta make life interesting, folks. But what I will tell you is, when I'm asked a question of the people that I am here to serve, I will respond with a direct answer.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: And in Harrisburg, Santorum doesn't hesitate to attack Bob Casey directly, accusing him of being weak on terrorism.

Senator SANTORUM: The president, and those of us who've supported this strategy of going after the Islamic fascists, have gotten no credit, none, for our efforts in making sure that not one single American on U.S. soil has been harmed by terrorists.

(Soundbite of applause)

My opponent came out the other day and said he's against the Patriot Act. He just doesn't understand. I mean, he just doesn't understand. You don't stand up and ask someone to vote for you for the United States Senate, if you simply don't understand the biggest threat that's facing this country.

Mr. BOB CASEY, Jr. (Democratic Senatorial candidate, Pennsylvania): That is a bald-faced lie, and he knows it.

LIASSON: In an interview in Philadelphia on Saturday, Bob Casey says if he were in the Senate, he would've voted for the Patriot Act. In a speech before the Young Democrats of America, Casey focuses on the main issue in his race for Senate: the behavior of the incumbent.

Mr. CASEY: We know that Senator Santorum says a lot of things that offend us. He says a lot of things that divide and demonize people. He does it all the time. It's my belief, and I think it's the belief of a lot of Pennsylvanians, that even though he has the right to speak, he should no longer be speaking for Pennsylvania in the United States Senate.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Casey attacked Santorum for voting against raising the minimum wage, for helping big oil companies, big drug companies, and K-Street lobbyists.

Mr. CASEY: The sad truth of the matter is that we are represented by a Senator who votes with George Bush 98 percent of the time. Ninety-eight percent. A friend of mine said to me a couple of months ago, he said, you know what? When two people agree 98% of the time, one of them is not necessary. So...

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

LIASSON: President Bush's approval ratings in Pennsylvania are low, about 41 percent, and that's a major factor hurting Santorum. Casey insists he will not be a rubber stamp for either party. He's pro-life, and he says he would have voted for Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court, a position at odds with most of his party in the Senate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Great to see you. We're doing everything we can to support you.

Mr. CASEY: Ah, that's great, thank you very much.


Mr. CASEY: Appreciate your advocacy for us. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yep. No problem.

LIASSON: As Casey works the crowd, Kathleen Gerber, from the Pennsylvania Young Democrats group, worries that Casey hasn't done enough even at this early stage in the race.

Ms. KATHLEEN GERBER (Young Democrats of America, Pennsylvania): I think he's got to get out there and start talking to people more, and be a lot more visible. That's what I've been hearing from everyone. He needs to do more of what he did today.

LIASSON: Santorum has a different set of problems. His comments on cultural issues may help rally conservatives, but in a swing state like Pennsylvania, they've also cost him the support of moderate Republicans in the vote-rich suburbs around Philadelphia. So, in the space of three days last month, Santorum covers all his bases.

Senator SANTORUM: If you can hit that can. I'll shoot first to give you a demonstration.

LIASSON: In Harrisburg he appears at a sports show and tries out a blowgun.

Senator SANTORUM: Ah! Yeah, man!


LIASSON: And he explains to his gun-rights audience why he's pushing hard to take social security numbers off of fish and game licenses.

Senator SANTORUM: The folks who are hunters and fisherman, in many cases, they have a heightened sense of concern about privacy, because of, you know, all the attempts in the past by government to try to regulate the sale of guns, and identifying who owns guns. So there's a suspicion of government already, and for the collection of a social security for no real legitimate reason, it doesn't serve any purpose.

LIASSON: Then, in Philadelphia, at an event at a children's hospital, Santorum showcases something else: his power as an incumbent to bring money to the state. In this case, from the Department of Transportation.

Senator SANTORUM: Secretary Mineta, thank you for coming to Philadelphia to announce these grants to do more research, and to understand better the impact of not having booster seats on children. And as a father of six, I have to climb over, sometimes, seats to get to buckle them in, and I can tell you that...

LIASSON: Political scientist Terry Madonna directs the Keystone Poll. He says there's nothing unusual about a conservative Republican, in a light blue state like Pennsylvania, marching back to the center in an election year. But this time, Madonna wonders if it will be enough.

Professor TERRY MADONNA (Director, Keystone Poll): Here's the fundamental question: is it too little, too late, and as an incumbent, have the voters said you're done? And Casey only has to be an option and an alternative, and Casey has said very little. He's using a kind of a rope-a-dope strategy, only doing what he has to do, and so Casey just wants to be the last candidate standing here, if Santorum can't find a way to get back in the race.

LIASSON: Or, says Madonna, does Santorum have reservoirs of strength that are not showing up in the polls right now? Strengths that could help him reverse Casey's current double-digit lead?

Professor MADONNA: Santorum himself is a very good, solid campaigner. He's been typically underestimated by Democrats who scratch their heads and can't figure out why this cultural hot-button candidate has won twice in a state that typically sends more moderate representatives to Congress.

LIASSON: One fact that Democrats overlook at their peril, says Madonna, is that Santorum is tireless. He visits every Pennsylvania County every year, and he's become the de facto head of the Republican party in the state.

He's also raised a tremendous amount of money. But, so has Bob Casey. Altogether, Madonna predicts the Santorum-Casey race will cost at least $70 million dollars; possibly the most expensive in the country this year. There's nine months to go, and both campaigns already look and feel like October.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

Mr. CASEY: I say we need a new direction in this state and in America, and we're going to begin that in 2006.

Senator SANTORUM: This is going to be a brutal race. I know we just came out of a Super Bowl, but this is going to be the Super Bowl of Senate races, and we're going to need all your help.

(Soundbite of applause)

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