Senate candidate much more than ‘just a farm boy’
Tom Smith was riding his combine, cutting oats and stewing over the direction of government when he hit upon the idea of trying to unseat Sen. Bob Casey.
The one-time union bulldozer operator, a registered Democrat for four decades, switched his registration to Republican to run. His self-funded campaign, the first to advertise in a five-man field, propelled him to nominee last week. A party-endorsed candidate and an ex-legislator were among those he had to beat to run against the Scranton Democrat in November.
“I was a conservative Democrat, a Reagan Democrat, and I voted for Republican candidates,” explained Smith, 64, of the tiny borough of Elderton in largely rural Plumcreek Township.
He sells himself as “just a farm boy from Armstrong County,” a man who enjoys a tobacco chew while checking his fields, but Smith is much more. A savvy businessman worth an estimated tens of millions, he mortgaged his house to start a coal-mining company in 1989. Eventually, his three mining companies employed 100 people and produced 100,000 tons monthly; he sold the businesses in 2010 but owns a trucking company.
He so opposes President Obama’s policies, and Casey’s support for Obama, that he invested $5 million to blanket the state with TV ads and glossy color mailers. He won 40 percent of the vote, nearly a 2-to-1 victory over his two closest competitors.
“I didn’t see where the Republican Party had anybody like (Sen.) Pat Toomey to take on Bob Casey,” said Smith, once a member of United Mine Workers of America. He said Casey, 52, “has a record I’d hate to defend. He voted with Obama 98 percent of the time. He voted on many things we don’t agree on: Obamacare, Cash for Clunkers … and stimulus funding.”
Casey’s spokesman Larry Smar said the senator has been an independent voice for Pennsylvania, opposing the president on some key initiatives. For example, Casey voted with Republicans on an “opt out” amendment for employers on a proposal to include contraception coverage in health care plans.
Smith and his wife, Saundy, a retired teacher, work the 400-acre farm where he grew up. Their seven children made them the grandparents of eight. The Smiths adopted their youngest four children when his business became successful.
“They said, ‘We can do more,’ (and) they adopted a family,” campaign manager Jim Conroy said.
The couple’s house includes an addition containing an indoor sports complex that they open to the community. Sports clubs and youth leagues use its gymnasium, walking track, batting cages, basketball and volleyball courts and equipped kitchen; one couple held a wedding reception there when their venue burned down.
Mt. Union Lutheran Church, which the Smiths attend, holds movie nights at the sports center, where Smith installed a projector. On Christmas Eve, people came to a church service in the Smiths’ red barn, which stands in striking contrast to the fields where corn, wheat and oats soon will grow.
The debt his children and grandchildren will inherit as taxpayers nags Smith, he has said. In a TV ad that shows red ink flooding the nation’s capital, he warns: “Our national debt is $15 trillion and climbing, and President Obama and Senator Casey want even more. America is in trouble and it’s time to change course.”
Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesman Mark Nicastre describes Smith as “a Tea Party conservative who supports privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare as we know it, while opposing payroll tax cuts for working families.”
“He founded a Tea Party group and he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to right-wing organizations and candidates,” Nicastre said. “He is too far to the right even for the Pennsylvania Republican Party.”
Smith was one of the founders of the Indiana Armstrong Patriots, a Tea Party group whose 2009 mission statement includes a goal of ensuring that elected officials act according to “the strict construction of the U.S. Constitution.”
Conroy said Smith would preserve and protect Social Security but allow younger workers to invest in personal retirement accounts. If the Supreme Court doesn’t rule that the health care law is unconstitutional, Smith vows to work to overturn it.
“Ironically, it’s Bob Casey that voted to gut Medicare through his support of the failed Obamacare legislation,” Conroy said.
“There’s no question Casey is going to try to pivot away from Barack Obama” as the election approaches, said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant. “There’s also no question he was an acolyte for Obama in the early days of his administration.”
Though state party leaders backed Chester County businessman Steve Welch in the primary, Gov. Tom Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley called Smith on election night to congratulate him.
“I anticipate the governor will move forward with the team that was victorious,” said Brian Nutt, the governor’s campaign spokesman.
“We’ll be with him 100 percent,” said state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason. “(Smith) is a solid guy, a regular guy.”
Still, some party faithful might balk at helping a former Democrat who hasn’t worked for state or local Republicans. That viewpoint — “if you don’t get the endorsement, you should not run” — is lessening within party ranks, said Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey, but “it’s hard to say he’ll receive the same degree of help an endorsed candidate would have gotten.”
“Most Republicans believe this may be the best opportunity we have to defeat Bob Casey,” said Roddey, who called Smith on Thursday to express support.
Conservative backers of former state Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County were troubled by Smith’s negative TV ads targeting Rohrer and Welch, said Gerow. He said Smith “has some heavy lifting to do in fence-mending and bridge-building with party regulars and conservative activists.”
Gleason believes voters’ dissatisfaction with Obama makes Casey vulnerable in many places in Pennsylvania.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, agrees that how Obama fares in the state will go a long way toward determining whether Smith has a legitimate shot at beating Casey.
“Yes, of course he has a prayer, but his opponent is formidable,” Borick said. “Bob Casey will have solid financial resources, and he has a golden name in Pennsylvania politics.”
Casey, an attorney, is the son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey. He was state auditor general and then treasurer. In Washington, he is a member of the Senate’s committees on Foreign Relations, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, the Joint Economic Committee and the Special Committee on Aging.
Anthony May, a former aide to Gov. Casey, said he thinks the outcome rides on the shoulders of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“If Smith continues to self-fund, he’ll be able to raise money … to attract real outside funds,” May said.
Though he toured the state in a blue bus during his primary campaign, Smith largely kept a low profile and relied on his TV ads. He’ll need to engage in “retail politics” and face Casey in at least one debate, said May, a Democrat.
That means Smith “needs to sharpen up on foreign policy, defense and health care,” Roddey said.
A 1965 graduate of Elderton High School, Smith postponed attending college to help his father work the family farm. He drove a school bus to supplement the family’s income. He took a job in the mines after marrying his high school sweetheart.
As a Democrat, Smith became a Plumcreek Township supervisor. He is a political novice on the statewide stage.
“If someone told me 10 years ago I’d be thinking about being a candidate for U.S. Senate, I’d have said, ‘Right,’ ” he said.
Smith’s biggest advantage may be that people tend to underestimate him, Gerow said.
“You don’t get to where he is without being substantial,” Gerow said.