Bunch: How America's dullest senator became Woke Bob Casey

Sen. Bob Casey hosts the first town hall of his reelection campaign at the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania Sunday March 12, 2017.

OK, so the speaking style can still come off like a 3 a.m. radio DJ overdosing on Sominex. But to the nearly 750 people who packed the dreary, barely lit brick auditorium at the Penn Museum in University City, the mild-mannered balding man who strolled out on a Sunday afternoon in faded jeans and casual pull-over sweater was the political equivalent of a rock star.

That is, a rock star who suddenly found himself at the top of the Billboard chart after years of playing obscure gigs.

"All I can say is, don't get discouraged," Sen. Bob Casey told the town hall crowd filled mostly with resisters of President Trump, his voice rising uncharacteristically. "Keep fighting! Keep working! Keep marching! Keep demanding answers! We're going to win some of these fights!" Some in the Philadelphia gathering rose to their feet,  holding aloft signs that read simply, "AGREE."

It was a scene that would have been unimaginable as recently as six months ago, when a Trump presidency still seemed as unlikely as Villanova losing to a 16 seed in March Madness, and Casey -- after a decade in Washington -- had done little to shake a reputation as arguably America's dullest senator.

In fact, yesterday's confab on the Penn campus was Casey's first town hall anywhere in Pennsylvania in more than five years. But given the reputation won by the heir to the Scranton-based Pennsylvania political dynasty -- as a centrist too bland to excite liberals or to anger conservatives -- it previously would have been doubtful that anyone would have showed up. Now, hundreds trekked through wind chills in the teens to hear the state's senior senator, and most were progressives wanting to show appreciation for Casey's unexpectedly stalwart opposition to Trump.

"I hope it will encourage him to know we want him to fight like hell for the things we care about," said Center City's Jean Haskell, 85, a longtime activist with the Granny Peace Brigade.  "We want him to fight like hell to keep the affordable health care, to keep EPA -- I mean, what's going to happen to the climate and the water and the air without EPA?"

So how did Casey go from the political equivalent of Ambien to what one of Philadelphia's Twitterati, the magazine writer Jason Fagone, recently described as Woke Bob Casey -- with a relentless and occasionally acerbic anti-Trump presence on social media?

If nothing else, Casey's drift to the left is a credit to an elected official defying the conventional wisdom. When Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states in his shocking November election victory, the Politics 101 playbook would have had Casey move rightward as he looks toward his 2018 re-election campaign, maybe look for ways to work with the new president.

Casey had other ideas. Instead, the two-term senator has relentless criticized and hectored the new president and his team over everything from Team Trump's ties to Russia to cutting billionaires' taxes while "decimating" health care. When Trump's new Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt questioned the conventional science on whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant, Casey and his young and energetic social-media team, tweeted, "We should probably leave this to, you know, actual scientists, but since you asked. Yes, it is." But the senator has also opposed Trump irl (in real life), voting against his controversial Cabinet nominees and expressing wariness on Sunday about Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch, whom he accused of favoring corporations over workers.

Indeed, Casey's decision to even have a Philadelphia town hall was arguably a form of trolling his GOP Pennsylvania counterpart Sen. Pat Toomey, who's been under fire for weeks from the activist group Tuesdays with Toomey for failing to have such a gathering. Keeping in the spirit of the political subtweet, Toomey's name wasn't mentioned Sunday.

The Saturday night that really turned things around for Casey's white-bread reputation came in late January when the senator, who was in Philadelphia for a fundraising gala at the Academy of Music, raced to the airport in his tuxedo and white tie to protest Trump's initial travel ban and negotiate for the freedom of detained migrants.

Haskell, the peace activist, said that until now Casey was "kind of a little too bland for me -- I never really heard from him. He was so middle of the road that he was nothing, and now he's coming out and saying he's fighting like hell for these issues."

"I thought he was kind of a make-do Democrat before the election," agreed Walter Bilderback, the dramaturg at the Wilma Theater, who said he came out partly to honor Casey's move to hold a town hall while Toomey has not. "He had a reputation of being pro-gun, pro life, fitting the DLC (the centrist Democratic Leadership Council) profile of...well, it's better than nothing."

The truth is that Casey has arguably been drifting leftward -- especially on the gun issue -- during his decade in the Senate. And while he still personally opposes abortion -- the issue that caused such a rift between his father, the late Gov. Robert Casey, and national Democrats -- Casey is also a staunch supporter of funding for Planned Parenthood, a point he again drove home to loud applause on Sunday.

It all led to an event that was very much the bizarro-world version of the contentious town halls that some GOP lawmakers have held this winter, many of which devolved into shouting matches over health care reform or Trump's fitness for the White House.

There were in fact a few Trump supporters sprinkled in the crowd like Lance Schaaf, a 46-year-old Boeing worker from Chester -- but neither he nor any of the others asked Casey a question. Schaaf told me that with Trump resisters dominating town hall meetings, backers of the president "are forced to be hiding under out kitchen table, terrified to express out opinion for fear of physical reprisals."

That didn't seem likely, but the event was oddly one-sided. The only tension came when Casey -- asked about banning fracking to support clean energy -- said "I think we can do both" and got a smattering of boos from the left-leaning crowd.

Otherwise, Casey was mostly cheered for taking on Trump on a variety of issues, including a call for a special prosecutor and other steps to aggressively probe the new administration's ties to Russia. Said Casey: "I would hope the president would be as tough on Vladimir Putin as he is on some Americans."

Nonetheless, the event was also loaded with warning signs for Democrats hoping to claw their way back after years of losing clout in Washington and Harrisburg. For one thing, the turnout was overwhelmingly white, and heavily suburban, at an urban venue surrounding by a sea of minority communities that are supposed to be critical to the party's future. There was a pointed lack of questions about issues like immigration or criminal justice.

What's more, Casey was pressed by several liberal attendees on the failings of the Democratic Party's strategy, or lack of one -- "We lost to a bigoted orange orangutan!" one huffed -- and didn't have a great answer. No one does, yet.

Still, it's hard not to believe that Casey's alliance with the Trump resistance has strengthened his hand going into 2018; one possible rival, U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, has already begged off the race. Looking further on down the road, there's even the fleeting thought that with Pennsylvania and particularly Casey's native Scranton so critical for 2020, the Democrats might eye him for the ticket -- kind of a Tim Kaine with less dramatic eyebrows.

But on this day in 2017, no one was thinking beyond the role that Casey's played in the tension-filled first 100 days of the Trump presidency. "I think he's kind stepping up to the plate when we need somebody to be a hero," Janice MacKenzie of Sellersville, a 70-year-old member of a Trump resistance group told me, standing outside the museum in a bone-piercing wind.

For activists like her, the senator who once wasn't there suddenly seems as comfortable as the old blue jeans he was wearing on a Sunday afternoon.