Pa. primary approaches for Senate GOP hopefuls, with no debates

Marc Levy
Associated Press

CAMP HILL, Pa. – Without any debates scheduled, Pennsylvania’s two Republican U.S. Senate candidates came as close to each other as they’ve been in public on Friday, speaking separately at the state’s largest annual gathering of conservatives.

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2016, file photo, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., left, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., center left, and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., right, watch as President-elect Donald Trump, center right, departs a rally in Hershey, Pa. The midnight deadline Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, gives justices four more days to impose new boundaries, just three months before Pennsylvania's primary elections. A redrawn Pennsylvania map could help Democrats pick up seats in the U.S. House and dramatically change the state's predominantly Republican, all-male delegation. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Before a crowd of about 200 people at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in suburban Harrisburg, state Rep. Jim Christiana of Beaver County and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Hazleton answered questions separately from conservative commentators.

While Barletta focused his criticism on the man he wants to unseat, second-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Christiana attacked Barletta at several turns.

Friday’s stage might be the closest the men get to each other — and it might be their biggest audience — before the May 15 primary election. Christiana said that he has asked Barletta for debates in every Pennsylvania media market, and received no response from Barletta’s campaign.

On stage, Christiana criticized Barletta for voting for last month’s $1.3 trillion budget bill that Casey also backed and for using inflammatory rhetoric on immigration.

Christiana also suggested Barletta would be indebted to Senate Republican leaders, rather than Pennsylvanians.

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Told by moderator and radio host R.J. Harris that the Senate leadership expects campaign cash and voting cards from newly elected senators, Christiana shot back that he wasn’t recruited to run by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

“I don’t owe the people in Washington anything, but I have a sense of urgency and a passion to start fixing these problems so that my kids and my grandkids someday don’t have to inherit them,” Christiana said. “So they aren’t getting my voting card. Thirteen million Pennsylvanians will have that and that’s the only people I’ll owe if I get elected.”

Barletta campaign aides didn’t respond to messages Friday.

Citing the budget bill vote, Christiana said Barletta’s voting record lacks contrast with Casey’s. Barletta, who took the stage before Christiana, maintained that his voting record is a stark contrast to Casey’s, on the GOP’s tax-cutting plan that passed in December, for instance, and the sweeping federal health care law signed in 2010 by former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Barletta, meanwhile, is a staunch supporter of Republican President Donald Trump, while Casey is a sharp critic of Trump’s.

On some things, Barletta and Christiana agree: neither sees the need to change gun laws following February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, and instead want to advance ideas to strengthen school safety.

In any case, there is a stark campaign difference between Barletta and Christiana.

Barletta is endorsed by the state party and backed by Trump. Heading into the year, he had $1 million on hand, while Christiana had less than $20,000.

Still, beating Casey in November’s election is a tall order. The son of the late former governor, Casey, 57, has strong name recognition and has won five statewide elections, including two as auditor general and one as state treasurer. He also has a huge cash advantage, with more than $10 million in the bank at the end of March, according to his campaign.