HAZLETON — Two giants of Northeastern Pennsylvania politics will be vying for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats this fall in one of the nation’s most closely-watched races.
Four-time U.S. Rep. and former Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta cruised to a sizeable victory Tuesday in his bid for the Republican nomination, setting up a November contest against U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton Democrat first elected to the seat in 2006.
Unofficial statewide returns with 95 pecent of districts reporting showed that Barletta captured 405,306 votes, while competitor Jim Christiana, 34, of Beaver County garnered only 239,820.
Casey, 58, who was running unopposed for his party’s nomination, captured 697,867 votes according to the unofficial tally — more votes than Barletta and Christiana combined.
Barletta, 62, who rocketed to national prominence thanks to his battles against crime and illegal immigrants while mayor, also was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, and has enjoyed President Trump’s support.
But Barletta faces a formidable foe in Casey, son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey and himself a former state treasurer and auditor general.
In the months leading up to Tuesday’s primary contest, Barletta clearly was fighting harder against Casey than against Christiana.
That battle broke out into the open during Barletta’s victory rally Tuesday night at The Pines Restaurant in downtown Hazleton, and it is likely to be a battle in which both claim to be the true champions of blue collar voters and working families.
Barletta accused Casey of moving too “far left,” and not being in line with the will of Pennsylvanians who support Trump’s agenda.
“I think it’s wrong to go against what the people here have voted for,” Barletta said, noting he is seeking support from Democrats and Independents who had voted for Trump.
Describing himself as a blue collar Congressman and former mayor, Barletta said it’s time to “send those blue collar values to the Senate.”
Casey campaign manager M.E. Smith released a statement on Barletta’s nomination saying the race will be a contest “between a candidate who fights for working families and a candidate who fights for the corporate interests that stack the deck against them.”
“It will be a choice between a candidate who has made it his mission to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and a candidate who has spent years working to undermine, privatize, or slash those programs,” Smith wrote.
Casey has a huge cash advantage, the Associated Press noted, with about $10 million in the bank at the end of April, compared with Barletta’s $1.3 million.
But, the Associated Press also pointed out, Casey is among 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this year in states won by Trump, making him a prime target for Republicans.
During his victory speech, Barletta focused heavily on his support for the president, saying the media had wrongly predicted Trump would not win the state.
Barletta reminded the audience that he was one of the first to rally behind Trump’s presidential campaign, ignoring skeptics who said he was “crazy.”
Trump is worthy of support, he said, citing declining unemployment, a rising stock market, North Korea “coming to the table,” growing consumer confidence and “the fact that ISIS is practically gone.”
The president, a prolific user of Twitter, was silent on social media Tuesday night.
Vice President Mike Pence did take to the social media platform to praise Barletta’s win, however, tweeting: “CONGRATS to my friend @LouForSenate in his big Pennsylvania primary victory tonight. He’s the kind of leader we need in the Senate to enact the America First agenda!”
Casey spokesman Smith took aim at Barletta’s ties to the Trump administration.
“It will be a choice between a candidate who stands up to President Trump when he’s wrong and a candidate who believes President Trump can do no wrong,” Smith said.
Barletta did have kind words for his fellow Republican Christiana, saying the two had exchanged well wishes, and that his opponent offered to help him in the general election campaign.
“He’s a young man with a bright future,” Barletta said of Christiana.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.