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GOP fears ‘oatmeal’ Bob Casey may be too tough to beat this cycle

Casey, a three-term senator who has built a reputation so moderate and meek he’s been compared to oatmeal, is in the crosshairs of national Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has identified Casey as one of his top targets in 2024, going so far as to rank his seat alongside those held by Senate Democrats in solidly red states such as West Virginia and Montana.

Republicans are desperate to lure former business leader David McCormick into the race, whom they see as the best possible challenger. The party establishment took a breather this week when Senator Doug Mastriano of MAGA announced he would not be running for the Senate “at this time”, potentially paving the way for McCormick’s nomination.

But behind the scenes, elected officials, strategists and GOP donors are still not optimistic about their chances against Casey. They are well aware that he has won all of his senatorial elections by double digits or so. They know he’s an institution in the state and the son of the late anti-abortion Governor Robert Casey, Sr. in part because of his last name.

“Bob Casey is political royalty in Pennsylvania. He’s a beloved incumbent senator,” said Republican Carla Sands, an ambassador to Denmark under former President Donald Trump who ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate. State last year “I think he’s tough to beat.”

If Trump wins the presidential nomination, some Republicans fear it will make an already difficult situation virtually impossible. They fear that Trump, who lost Pennsylvania to President Joe Biden in 2020, will hold back candidates on the negative ballot and force them to answer for his unpredictable comments. As he decides to run, McCormick himself is weighing the prospect of running alongside Trump, according to two Republicans close to him.

“It certainly makes it harder for a Republican to win the Senate race if Trump is on the ticket for sure. For a Republican to beat Casey, I think the GOP presidential candidate has to win Pennsylvania,” said Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist. “Casey is more popular than Biden in Pennsylvania and will likely surpass him.”

Although Republicans view Casey as a strong contender, the Senate map as a whole in 2024 heavily favors their party. Democrats are on defense in 23 states, including several on battlegrounds and in full-fledged MAGA country. Republicans face re-election in just 11 states, with the best opportunities for Democrats found in hostile territory like Florida and Texas. Republicans need only flip two Senate seats — or one if they win the White House — to regain control of the upper house.

But the GOP’s assessment of Casey underscores another dynamic in the Senate races that complicates the picture next year. Democrats have several proven senators on their slate in 2024 – like Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester and eventually Joe Manchin — who are widely seen as skilled opponents and have outplayed other candidates in their party.

During the 2018 blue wave, Casey carried the state by 13 percentage points, two years after Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania to Trump. In 2012, Casey won by 9 percentage points, compared to President Barack Obama’s 5-point margin of victory at the time.

Republicans have said a challenge they face is that Casey is so bland that no one hates him, a similar dilemma they faced in 2020 with Biden. Another is Casey’s constituent services.

“His aides who represent him are very effective,” said Cambria County Republican Party Chairwoman Jackie Kulback. “They help with voter issues, things like that. It helps you win elections.

Additionally, she said, “Honestly, I think there are a lot of people who still think they’re voting for his dad.”

Casey’s perspective in the GOP underscores why Republicans in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC aggressively courted McCormick — and dissuaded Mastriano from entering the race. Public and private polls showed Casey ahead of McCormick, but the race would be closer if McCormick was on the ticket.

After the Senate GOP campaign arm took a hands-off approach to the primaries last year with disappointing results, the Republican National Senate Committee is getting involved this time around in several states in hopes of nominating candidates from high quality. Republican officials believe McCormick, a combat veteran and former hedge fund CEO, can appeal to suburban voters and help fund what is expected to be a very expensive campaign against Casey.

“A tough, well-funded GOP opponent could give him a run,” Novotney said.

Keith Rothfus, a former GOP congressman, is also eyeing the Senate contest. Sands, the former ambassador, recently declined to rule out a run in 2024.

Despite many Republicans’ not-so-optimistic attitude toward Casey, the Democrat is not without vulnerabilities. He has shifted to the left in recent years – one liberal Philadelphia columnist dubbed him “Woke Bob Casey” – which could give Republicans an opening to challenge his moderate image. Biden’s approval ratings are dismal and could knock Casey and other Democrats off the ballot. Casey voted with Biden nearly 99% of the time, according to political data site FiveThirtyEight, a fact the GOP is keen to point out. And Casey was lucky, running the good years for the Democrats.

In a statement Thursday after Mastriano’s announcement, McCormick flagged the lines of attack he would use against Casey if he showed up.

“I am seriously considering running for the United States Senate because Bob Casey has consistently made life worse for families in Pennsylvania for the past 18 years, and our state deserves better,” he said. “He is openly hostile to our state’s energy industry, condones dangerous criminals walking free on our streets, and allows open borders, leading to a terrifying increase in fentanyl deaths in Pennsylvania.”

Republicans also believe that recent headlines about Casey are another liability and that they have never been sued in TV ads before. Casey’s brother signed up to lobby last year and a March New York Post article revealed that Casey’s campaign had paid for his sister’s print shop.

Some GOP members even believe that Trump sharing a ticket with McCormick would be positive for both men. They envision a repeat of 2016, when Trump and then Sen. Pat Toomey both won Pennsylvania, but with different paths: Toomey performed better in suburban areas, while Trump was stronger in rural areas of the state.

“To beat Bob Casey, you have to recreate the Toomey-Trump coalition of 2016,” said a national GOP strategist who was granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. “You blow it out in rural areas and hold the Democratic numbers in the suburbs.”

And, according to some Republicans, the benefits of the Casey name may finally be starting to fade.

“I think what Bobby has always had going for him is his father’s legacy,” Rep said. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.). “But I will say that I think the majority of voters in Pennsylvania are at an age where they don’t remember Bob Sr.”

Ally Mutnick contributed to this article.

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