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Barletta says 'yes' to Senate bid, history says 'meh'

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta's official entry into the U.S. Senate race challenges political history. Will it make history of its own?

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (left) watches as  President-elect Donald Trump leaves  a rally in Hershey, Pa. last December.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (left) watches as President-elect Donald Trump leaves a rally in Hershey, Pa. last December.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

The last thing Lou Barletta says in a three-minute, mass-emailed video early Tuesday announcing his bid for U.S. Senate is, "I believe, together, we're about to make history."

For the Republican central-Pennsylvania congressman to get to the Senate by winning a 2018 primary, then beating incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, that's exactly what it would take.

Know the reelection rate of incumbent senators of the party not in the White House in midterm elections over the last 100 years?

Well, from 1914 through 2014, it's 91 percent, according to data from the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Doesn't mean it never happens. Doesn't mean it can't happen here.

And, look, who thought Donald Trump would win Pennsylvania or the White House? And who thinks electoral politics, in this state or elsewhere, has settled back into fairly predictable patterns?

Still, by any honest assessment, Barletta's got a hill to climb.

"It's clearly a tough race," says a statewide GOP campaign consultant not associated with Barletta's effort, "but it's doable, more doable than the governor's race."

Democratic Gov. Wolf also faces reelection next year. His job approval ratings in the most recent Franklin and Marshall poll are higher than Casey's.

The argument is that Casey's vulnerable because he's moved to the left as the state, in the last presidential election and in terms of the legislature, moved to the right.

Some Republicans also suggest there's Casey fatigue. He's the son of a former two-term governor. He's been in elective office at state and federal levels for 20 years. And there are plenty of anxious voters fed up with government, ready and willing to oust the ins.

But an overarching factor in the race, as in so much of our politics, is Trump.

Barletta's a former Hazleton mayor who pushed anti-immigration stuff before Trump, has been referred to as Trump's "political godfather," was one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress, and was urged by Trump to seek the Senate.

Barletta is cemented to the president. In his announcement video, Barletta says he wants to "make Pennsylvania and America great again."

So it seems that as Trump goes, so goes Barletta. And, at the moment, Trump's not going all that well.

The national narrative is still that 2018's a Democratic year. Punditry from, for example, Inside Elections or the Cook Political Report says Pennsylvania's Senate race leans, or is likely, Democratic.

I'd note, though, that Gallup polling from January through June has Trump's approval rating in Pennsylvania (42 percent) higher than in any other Northeastern state except New Hampshire (43 percent).

And it seems Barletta can throw a punch. He labels Casey an "obstructionist." He jabs at Casey's "famous last name." He tags Casey for building a war chest with "extreme liberal interest groups." Such swipes can soften an opponent.

Barletta faces a potentially crowded and resource-draining primary featuring, as of now and among others, Main Line real estate mogul Jeff Bartos and Western Pennsylvania state Reps. Rick Saccone and Jim Christiana.

The consensus among many experienced in Pennsylvania politics is: Barletta wins the GOP nomination but Casey wins reelection. The consensus has been wrong before.

Truth is, we have no idea where we'll be a year from now, what issues will drive campaigns and, importantly, where Trump will be in the hearts and minds of voters.

But I have this feeling. The way things are going in politics these days? Little seems secure, certain, or even sane. So I wonder — among Barletta, Casey and Trump — whether we're about to make history.