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Showdown in Pennsylvania

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 3, 2003

Congressman Pat Toomey (R-PA) has decided to run for the U.S. Senate against a more liberal incumbent. What makes this a bigger story than it otherwise would be is that the incumbent is Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and the contest will be the Republican primary.

For over 22 years, Specter has been warning the Republican Party against veering too to the right, a stance that has endeared him to many liberal op-ed writers but few grassroots conservatives active in the party. In 1996, Specter ran for president largely on a platform of irritating the religious right and excising the pro-life plank from the Republicans' national party platform. He generally described himself to the primary electorate as a "fiscal-economic conservative and a social libertarian."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) center, flanked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), right, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), left
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) center, flanked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), right, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), left

Of course, he was neither and the voters weren't fooled. While a libertarian case can be made against the religious conservative positions on abortion, sexual orientation and other issues, Specter's record goes beyond making that case to embracing activist government on these questions (e.g., backing federal funds to Planned Parenthood and including sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws). This would make social liberal a more accurate description of his position than libertarian. Nor is he much of a fiscal conservative. In 2002, he earned only a 50 percent rating from the American Conservative Union even though the only social issue senators were rated on that year involved a vote on whether to allow abortions in overseas military bases. This means he frequently opposed the ACU on economic and size-of-government issues.

By contrast, Toomey earned a 100 percent rating from the ACU in 2002. His lifetime rating is 97 percent, as opposed to Specter's 42 percent. He is not only to Specter's right socially, he is a dedicated conservative on economic policy as well. This combination is the key to Toomey's underdog Senate bid. In the past, Specter has been opposed by candidates who were either completely unknown or single-issue pro-lifers and were still able to win up to a third of the vote, largely with the support of disgruntled social conservatives. A coalition of economic and social conservatives backing a known candidate who has won elections in the past might be able to unseat the moderate Republican senator in a closed primary. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru has observed of Specter's voting record, "Whether the issue is taxes, spending, racial preferences, national security, abortion, cloning, hate crimes, labor law, or tort reform, there's something to offend most Republicans."


Toomey has been able to win three times in a congressional district that voted for Al Gore without watering down his conservatism. His district also boasts a high number of seniors, yet rather than run from reforming Social Security along free-market lines, he has worked to explain and defend such proposals. Pennsylvania's junior senator, Rick Santorum, is a Republican as conservative as he is who was reelected at the same time George W. Bush lost the state to Gore. So Toomey could conceivably win statewide.

Yet the ability to win a general election is going to be a major issue for many skittish Republicans in both Pennsylvania and Washington. Examined strictly on conservative grounds, Specter is nowhere near as good as Toomey but better than any Democrat likely run for the seat. He is to the left of his own party but noticeably to the right of the national Democrats. While Specter has irritated conservatives by voting against the party at such pivotal times as the confirmation of Robert Bork and the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, he helped win confirmation for Clarence Thomas and has usually voted with the Bush administration when his vote was absolutely needed. For example, while he criticized the original Bush tax cut proposal as being too big, he did vote for the compromise tax cut that passed in 2001. Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and John McCain (R-AZ) did not. The last several years of a closely divided Senate seesawing back and forth between Democratic and Republican control has shown both parties the importance of even a single seat.

Specter has Santorum's backing. More importantly, he has a significant fundraising advantage and the support of the White House. The last sitting Republican senator to be defeated in a primary was Bob Smith of New Hampshire. He had the nominal support of the Bush administration – President Bush formally endorsed all incumbent Republican senators for reelection in 2002 – but many members of the president's political team actively encouraged John Sununu's challenge. There appears to be fewer mixed signals from the administration this time.

Moreover, Sununu didn't challenge Smith on ideological grounds. The rationale for his candidacy was that he would be a more electable and effective conservative than Smith. To find incumbent Republican senators who were unseated in the primary by more conservative opponents, you have to go all the way back to Jeff Bell's 1978 upset of Clifford Chase in New Jersey and Alfonse D'Amato's defeat of Jacob Javits in 1980. (D'Amato won the general election; Bell lost.) Both Chase and Javits were significantly to the left even of Specter.

But the GOP is more homogenously conservative now than it was then, as the Rockefeller Republicans continue to be displaced by the Reagan Republicans. Organizations like the tax-cutting, pro-market Club for Growth and the small-government Republican Liberty Caucus are working to rectify the disconnect between a conservative party base and a less consistent body of Republican elected officials. This includes increasingly recruiting and supporting challengers to Republicans who fail to support lower taxes and less government. This does not only include Specter. Such Republicans are also working to persuade Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to challenge John McCain in the 2004 GOP primary.

Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean likes to quote the late Paul Wellstone's line about representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Moderate to liberal Arlen Specter Republicans may increasingly find themselves challenged by representatives of the Republican wing of the Republican Party.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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