At first glance, Rep. Pat Toomey’s decision to mount a primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania is irrational.
For starters, Specter has nearly $6 million on hand while Toomey has less than $700,000. Furthermore, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters, Specter has a 60 percent approval rating, higher than any other statewide elected official, including GOP Sen. Rick Santorum (56 percent approval) and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell (54 percent approval). On the other hand, 87 percent of respondents did not know enough about Toomey to form an opinion.
Perhaps most importantly, national Republican leaders have made it clear that they are opposed to a primary challenge to Specter. In a statement released on the day of Toomey’s campaign announcement, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said, “We don’t need an intra-squad scrimmage in Pennsylvania.”
President Bush, through Chief of Staff Andrew Card, has weighed in as well.
“The White House,” according to Card, “is very interested in seeing Arlen Specter win.” And Santorum, the state’s junior Senator, has publicly voiced his opposition to Toomey’s challenge.
When you factor in Specter’s extraordinary campaign skills, one wonders just what Toomey is thinking. As Allen concluded, “I don’t see any reason why a Republican would want to challenge Arlen in a primary.”
Obviously, Allen and Santorum are being pragmatic; with a razor-thin margin in the Senate, they have to back candidates who look like shoo-ins to hold onto seats. Yet those Senators, as conservatives, surely understand — and deep down are probably sympathetic to — what is going on here. As strange as it may seem to cynical political observers, Toomey is standing on principle. As he said during an interview recently, “If I decide to run, it’s going to be because we really have fundamentally different ideologies. … I’m a conservative. He’s a liberal.”
Calling Specter a liberal is an overstatement, but he is among the least conservative Republicans in the Senate. Whereas Santorum, for instance, had a score of 100 from the American Conservative Union in 2000, Specter’s score was 62 (and was 48 in 1999). Toomey consistently receives scores in the 90s from the ACU.
Toomey makes the charge that Specter can’t be counted on to advance the conservative cause and that he’s among a “handful of Republican Senators who … when push comes to shove, will side with the Democrats.” It is true that Specter voted against a majority of Republicans more often than almost any other Senate Republican in 2002. The exceptions were three New England Senators — Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine). Specter is also among the Republican Senators who most often voted against Bush’s positions in 2002 (though his presidential support score of 89 is virtually identical to Toomey’s 88).
The differences between Toomey and Specter are, in fact, deep. The two are on opposite sides of social issues like abortion and stem-cell research. On economic and fiscal issues, Toomey is opposed to increases in the minimum wage and is an ardent tax cutter; Specter has supported minimum wage increases and has raised concerns about the depth of some proposed tax cuts. While Toomey’s voting record is nearly always at odds with organized labor, Specter is among the most pro-labor Republicans. And Toomey supports caps on medical malpractice, while Specter favors excluding at least the most egregious cases from such caps.
So Toomey is initiating this David and Goliath battle, at least in part, on ideological grounds. As he recently told a group of Lancaster County Republicans, “Our commonwealth has one great Senator who is committed to the principles of our party. But we deserve two.”
Many observers will still find it hard to believe Toomey’s stated motivation. They’ll say that his 1998 pledge to serve only three terms in the House forces him to look elsewhere in 2004 to continue his political career. But in all likelihood, that pledge could be broken without much fallout; plenty of Representatives, especially those in safe districts, have won re-election handily after breaking such promises. Plus, keeping the pledge is itself an act of principle that shouldn’t be ignored.
Others will say Toomey’s Senate campaign is just a warmup to a gubernatorial bid in 2006. Since nearly nine in 10 Pennsylvanians haven’t heard of him, making a splash in a statewide bid now would be beneficial down the road. The Toomey campaign denies this is part of the Congressman’s calculation, but it does help explain his effort in terms that are more politically rational.
But rational or not, it would be a mistake to underestimate Toomey’s sincerity. Though the odds are long against a victory, his dedication to the cause just might stir up enough conservatives to give Specter a bit of a scare. Regardless of the outcome, however, Toomey should be given credit for fighting for his beliefs in an age when principles seem to be an afterthought for many politicians.
Stephen K. Medvic is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.