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Why conservatives will be watching the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 9, 2003

Thirty-three right-of-center members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written to David Keene, the Chairman for Life of the American Conservative Union (ACU), questioning the integrity of the organization. Something like that has never happened in all the years since the late U.S. Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH) and others had founded the ACU following the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign.

Senator Arlen Specter Rep. Pat Toomey
Specter and Toomey

What gives here? Well, it seems that Keene wrote an opinion piece, not in his official capacity as Chairman of ACU but as a political observer, commenting on the upcoming primary race in Pennsylvania between incumbent Senator Arlen Specter and Rep. Pat Toomey. Keene is keen on Specter. ACU annually keeps track of key votes in the House and Senate and it then rates the Members of Congress. Senator Specter has a lifetime ACU rating of 42 per cent. Toomey has a lifetime rating of 97 per cent. (Click here for ratings of Penn. members)

Keene is also a lobbyist, which has prompted Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of National Review, to suggest that Keene's ringing endorsement of Specter has much to do with the clients of Keene who have business before the Appropriations Committee.

Keene is certainly correct in one respect. Specter has a sharp intellect and a keen ability to frame issues, which can make him a very effective ally. There is no doubt that Clarence Thomas would not be on the Supreme Court today but for the number that former prosecutor Specter did on the supposedly sainted Anita Hill. In fact, in 1992, I met with some 50 Pennsylvania conservative leaders to tell them that they needed to support Specter in the general election. Because of the Anita Hill episode, the radical feminists and their affiliated groups were lining up Specter in their sights. I suggested that if they were able to defeat him on account of Hill, no senator would step forth to challenge them again for decades. Most of these conservative leaders swallowed hard and did support him. He won by a much closer margin than had been the case in his earlier Senate campaigns.

Specter has also been helpful on partial birth abortion. As a so-called pro-choice Senator, his arguments in favor of the law restricting the procedure gave cover to other pro-abortion senators who wanted to toss a bone to the pro-life movement.

Recently he has been helpful to President George W. Bush in getting his judicial nominees voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and on to the floor.

Indeed, in the two years before every six year election cycle, Specter moves a bit to the right and, political memories being as short as they are, he generally has managed to retain a substantial portion of the conservative vote while putting a coalition of moderates and liberals together. This strategy allowed him to win reelection by substantial margins in 1986 and 1998.

Ponnuru makes the point that Keene does not argue that Pat Toomey is unelectable and thus Specter must be renominated in order for that seat to stay in Republican hands. Senator Rick Santorum is a fellow Pennsylvania Republican and much more conservative. Santorum's 1994 election and his 2000 reelection victory, which he won by a fairly comfortable margin in a year that Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore carried the state, demonstrate that argument is false. And although Santorum (and the White House) are supporting Specter, the fact is that if Toomey were to emerge from the GOP primary as the nominee, he could be elected by putting together the same coalition that Santorum did in his reelection race.

Toomey has won three times in a heavily Democrat district, one that is not altogether different from the district Santorum had represented for two terms before winning his U.S. Senate seat. The party establishment wrote off both Santorum and Toomey when they initially ran for the House, only to be proven wrong in each case. Santorum is easily Pennsylvania's most conservative Senator since the 1920s. Even after his most recent media induced flap, Santorum maintained the same favorable rating of 55 per cent in a May 2003 poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute that he had received in their survey conducted during the previous month.

Specter has this problem. Against any Democrat he will win and win big. The Democrats are even finding it hard to scrounge up a credible challenger. But he must first get through a primary. It is a closed primary, which means only actual registered Republicans can vote. Conservatives tend to turn out in disproportionate numbers in Republican primaries.

Specter has managed to do enough favors for folks like Keene that he has some conservatives who will vouch for him. He even has a former Pat Robertson staffer on his Senate staff to work on issues such as abstinence.

Toomey intends, on the other hand, to remind voters how Specter behaves when not running for office. He will remind Republicans how Specter could not find a single credible charge against President Bill Clinton when his impeachment trial was before the Senate.

And he will raise the question of how Specter will behave if he becomes Chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Republicans retain control of the Senate. GOP caucus rules require that Utah's Senator Orrin Hatch move on in the next Congress as he will have served the maximum allowable time as Chairman of Judiciary. Specter is next in line unless his colleagues vote against him, which is highly unlikely. Yes, Specter supports Bush's judicial nominees now, but will he after his re-election?

If Specter wins the primary, Toomey will support him, being the loyal Republican that he is. But if Toomey wins, will Specter damn him with faint praise or make the sort of statement that President Eisenhower made about his Vice President, quite possibly costing Richard Nixon the election in 1960? (Eisenhower was asked to name one accomplishment that Nixon had achieved while serving under Ike. The President replied that if he had a week he could try to think of something.)

Republicans have to worry about that, because Specter is not a partisan Republican.

As for Keene, he says he was only speaking for himself and not the ACU (although he was identified as Chairman of ACU). It is doubtful he will pay for his Specter love-in. He controls his board in a way that would make Tammany Hall proud.

Still and all, what Keene has managed to accomplish is to get that Pennsylvania race on the radar screens of conservatives everywhere. For 2004, that will be the Senate race to watch.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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