In Eagles-Steelers scrap, who do Pa.'s U.S. senators back?

The Eagles play the Steelers Sunday, and for most of Pennsylvania, the decision about who to root for isn’t so much a decision as it is a fundamental act of identity.

When you’re a Senator who represents the entire state, though, and would love votes from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their rabid fan-bases, well, loyalty might be a little more complicated.

The teams represent the two biggest cities in the state, and they each have fan followings that are intense, proud, sensitive to slights and probably include a fair number of people more apt to remember who a politician roots for than, say, how he feels about U.S. foreign aid. Both cities wrap so much of themselves in their NFL teams.

So, of course, I had to ask Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey who they had in this week’s battle of Eastern and Western Pennsylvania (if only to cause a little trouble). Toomey’s staff said he’s a long-time Eagles fan. The Republican lives in Zionsville, not far from the Eagles’ Bethlehem training camp, so perhaps that plays a role.

Staff for Casey, a Democrat and Scranton native, didn’t offer an answer. (His Washington office has hints of a Pittsburgh sports tilt – the waiting room includes a prominent photo of Casey as a child with Pittsburgh Pirate legend Roberto Clemente – but let’s assume that one picture isn’t a conclusive measure of sports loyalty).

To be fair, Casey has more at risk – Philly and Pittsburgh are Democratic strongholds, and he’s in the midst of a re-election campaign against Republican Tom Smith, a Steelers fan who boasted about that fact while at a summer event in Philly, with U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, the former Eagles offensive lineman, nearby on stage.

Is it a big deal? No. Likely to change an election in any significant way? Certainly not.

But that’s all the more reason to just pick a side. A candidate’s willingness to choose says a little something about how comfortable he is laying out his personality, and a little about how much he worries about the widespread, but always futile, game of trying to never offend anyone, anywhere.

While thinking about the upcoming game, I was reminded of a New Jersey gubernatorial debate in 2005, where the loyalty question is even tougher, since it involves the Giants and Jets in North Jersey and the Eagles in the South. Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester were each asked about their favorite team. Corzine’s answer was immediate and definitive: Giants. Fair enough. Next question.

Forrester, who came from the central part of the state, said something to the effect of: I have affection for the Giants and Eagles. Wow. Problems.

First, no sports fan in the history of sports fans has ever described his loyalty as “having affection” for his team. Second, there are no Eagles fans who have anything but disdain for the Giants, and vice versa, and anyone with any knowledge of either team knows that.

Instead of simply choosing a side, Forrester lost everyone. What should have been a straight forward, light bit of insight into his personal side turned into a gaffe that made him look like a man who would say anything to win, and feared even the slightest bit, most inconsequential bit of ire from anyone.

Which is the biggest mistake of all, because while sports fans love it if you, too, cheer on the same team that they do, they also appreciate team loyalty and respect real differences, if you come by them honestly.

Like, hopefully, most voters.