"It's hard to find a more perfect referendum on Trump," is how G. Terry Madonna, professor at Franklin and Marshall College and Pennsylvania's premier pollster, characterized his state's U.S. Senate race in 2018.
Madonna is just one political expert who sees Republican Rep. Lou Barletta's decision to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey as setting the stage for a dynamic race with national overtones. As Madonna put it, "Trump and Barletta are joined at the hip, especially on immigration."
Along with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., (now U.S. Attorney General), four-term Rep. Barletta was one of the earliest members of Congress to endorse and campaign for Donald Trump in his race for president last year.
Trump offered Barletta the position of secretary of labor, but the congressman declined. Since then, the president has twice urged Barletta to run for the Senate — once at a White House ceremony, and once privately. (Barletta is the strong favorite to win the Senate primary next May over Republican businessman Jeff Bartos, who recently denounced rumors of his withdrawal from the race as "fake news.")
If Barletta is "Trump's guy" in the Keystone State, then two-term Sen. Casey is inarguably "Obama's guy." In '08, with most of his fellow Democratic leaders in the Keystone State in the Hillary Clinton column, Casey strongly supported personal friend Obama for the presidential nomination.
"It's a very clear contest all right," Barletta told Newsmax. "I am proud to stand with the president and it is obvious that [Casey] is the 'anti-Trump.' Whatever the issue — from lowering tax rates for all Americans to repealing Obamacare — he's going to resist and object. And, in the process, he keeps moving to the left."
A onetime high school baseball star who once tried out for the Cincinnati Reds ("If only I could have hit a curve ball, I would have been right there with Johnny Bench and Pete Rose!"), Barletta, 61, has long campaigned and won on issues other politicians won't touch.
He cited the problem of illegal immigration which, in his words, "no elected official here wanted any part of trying to solve."
As mayor of Hazelton, Pa., a decade ago, Barletta successfully pushed resolutions denying business licenses to local merchants who knowingly hired illegal immigrants and to landlords who rented to non-citizens.
Barletta's tough actions drew national news and criticism from the Bush administration. The late Tony Snow, George W. Bush's press secretary, denounced Barletta's program as a "patchwork solution" to the immigration crisis.
But voters in Pennsylvania's 10th District responded positively. In 2010, Barletta unseated 28-year Rep. Paul Kanjorski in one of the biggest upsets in Pennsylvania that year.
"The issue of illegal immigration was key to President Trump's election and to his carrying Pennsylvania," said Barletta, pointing out Casey's opposition to the administration's plan to limit immigration and to emphasize admission of immigrants who speak English.
The issue of abortion is also expected to be a heated topic in the Barletta-Casey bout. Casey, he explained, "has gotten a pass on the life issue for years because of his father [the late Gov. Bob Casey, Sr., who became pariah within the Democratic party because of his pro-life stance]. "You'd be amazed how many people think [Sen. Casey] is pro-life when he was rated 'zero' by the National Right to Life Committee."
The congressman added that Casey voted against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who had the blessings of the pro-life community.
Whether the issue is life, immigration, repeal of Obamacare or taxes, Barletta is going to spell out where he and his opponent differ. On virtually all issues, their differences are razor-sharp.
Last year, Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey was narrowly re-elected in the most-watched Senate race of the year and the costliest Senate contest in history. Barletta freely remarked that the price tag on his race against Casey will probably break that record — "$30 million or more, easily."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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