It’s been more than two years since Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania in 2016, and it’s still on Bob Casey’s mind. He wishes he had pushed Hillary Clinton to campaign more outside Pennsylvania’s two major cities. He thinks he should have pressed the Democratic nominee to go to economically struggling places like Washington and Greene counties to talk about rural broadband rather than talk about Trump.
Those regrets help explain why Casey has emerged as one of the most improbable names being floated as a 2020 Democratic presidential prospect. The Pennsylvania senator, on the heels of a double-digit victory in the midterm election, made a late and surprising entry into the invisible primary last month. It wasn’t activists, donors or reporters who first added his name to the long list of potential candidates, but Casey himself who suggested he was considering a bid.
He’s determined that the Democratic nominee not make the same mistakes in 2020.
"Looking back on it, months later and months later, and after more and more therapy, every time I thought about that election, I was remembering flashing lights that I looked at and then dismissed,” Casey said in an interview with POLITICO. “I share some of the blame for not calling Brooklyn and saying, ‘You can’t just go to Pittsburgh.’”
There isn’t exactly a clear lane for a mild-mannered, self-described “pro-life” Democrat with virtually no national profile — certainly not in an era in which big personalities and progressives are ascendant in his party. But Casey can’t be easily dismissed either after winning reelection to a third term in November by nearly 700,000 votes in a state with 20 electoral votes.
He thrashed Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican who ran for the Senate at President Trump’s urging, not only in the Philadelphia suburbs, but in some of the mostly white, working-class counties that were key to the GOP’s victory in 2016 as well.
Casey also won 40 percent of the vote in rural areas, according to exit polls — 14 points more than Clinton captured in those parts of the state in 2016.
Casey, whose father served two terms as governor, says Democrats have to compete in those places to win back the state in 2020.
“When a Democrat goes to a rural county, it’s not just showing up, but showing them you give a damn about their lives,” he said.
As Democrats debate whether to try to win back white working-class voters who cast a ballot for Trump after backing Obama, or focus their efforts on increasing turnout among people of color and other more loyal Democratic constituencies, Casey said, “I believe we’re a great party and we can do both.”
Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Shapiro, said he’s encouraged Casey to run.
“Bob is a unique politician in that he can compete everywhere from Fishtown to Johnstown,” said Shapiro, referring to a popular Philadelphia neighborhood and a small city 240 miles away in western Pennsylvania.
Shapiro noted that Casey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary “really mattered”— and that his electoral experience should be part of the Democrats’ “formula for victory.”
Casey was the first prominent Democrat in the state to throw his weight behind Obama.
“It helped Barack Obama connect in communities that, at least in that moment in time, were not natural areas where he connected,” Shapiro said.
Obama went on to lose Pennsylvania’s primary that year, but by a smaller margin than expected, denying Clinton a blowout victory and helping Obama hold onto his lead in the delegate count.
Unlike other potential presidential candidates, Casey hasn’t courted Democrats in key early primary states. He was invited to New Hampshire’s Politics & Eggs series, a longtime campaign stop for possible presidential candidates, but he hasn’t confirmed that he’s attending yet.
“At some point, a candidate gets to an active consideration,” Casey said, “and I’m nowhere near that.”
Sources familiar with Casey’s thinking on the matter say it’s unlikely he’ll launch a presidential campaign. As much as anything else, Casey seems to care about having a voice in the 2020 nomination process as someone who has won six statewide elections in Pennsylvania — a must-win state for Democratic presidential nominees that the party let slip away in 2016 the first time since 1988.
With most top-tier presidential prospects poised to announce campaigns in coming weeks and already deep into campaign preparations, Casey’s comments also suggest he’s gunning to be the future Democratic nominee’s running mate.
J.J. Balaban, a Democratic political strategist based in Pennsylvania, said Casey could be a “reassuring, mainstream” pick for vice president — not unlike Tim Kaine in 2016.
“Casey would be a choice that a Democratic president nominee, particularly one who is not a white male, would look at Bob Casey and say, ‘He could help the ticket carry Pennsylvania, which is a must-win state,’” he said.
Being considered for vice president, Casey said, “would be a great privilege.”
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