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Toomey Won’t Get A Free Ride From ‘Pit Bull’ Specter

The moment Rep. Pat Toomey (Pa.) announced that he would take on Sen. Arlen Specter in a GOP primary next year, the three-term Congressman guaranteed himself 35 percent or even 40 percent of the vote. That’s an impressive base for a challenger, but Toomey is likely to find that the next 10 or 15 points are going to be far tougher. [IMGCAP(1)]

Toomey, who represents the politically marginal 15th district and is abiding by his promise to serve only three terms in the House, believes Specter’s record on everything from abortion and cloning to taxes and government spending is simply too liberal for Republican voters. He repeatedly refers to the Senator as an “obstructionist” and a “liberal,” and insists that his own views are more in line with those of most Keystone State Republicans.

Specter’s primary opponents have always been able to draw about a third of the vote even when they have been seriously underfunded and generally unknown.

In 1992, state Rep. Stephen Freind ran primarily as a pro-life challenger to the pro-choice Specter, and drew a respectable 35 percent of the vote. Six years later, two no-name primary opponents, Larry Murphy and Tom Lingenfelter, combined to draw just under 33 percent against the incumbent.

In addition to social conservatives, who have never liked Specter’s brand of liberal Republicanism, Toomey is counting on support from anti-tax activists, including two influential Washington-based groups, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and Stephen Moore’s Club for Growth, the latter of which has raised funds for a number of conservative primary challengers over the past two cycles. He also has the backing of publisher Steve Forbes.

Toomey has polling that allegedly demonstrates he can beat the Senator. But at this point, even conservatives in the state don’t seem particularly upset with Specter. Toomey will need to change that.

“In order to win, Toomey will have to make Republican voters angry at Arlen again,” says veteran conservative leader Paul Weyrich.

While there surely is an automatic anti-Specter vote in the GOP primary, a variety of politically savvy Republicans who know Pennsylvania’s political dynamics are skeptical about Toomey’s chances. They doubt that the Congressman will raise the money he will need to win.

Specter, who is not known for his personal warmth or sense of humor, is widely regarded as one of the more vindictive members of the Senate, and few Republican officeholders or interest groups (including some who have quietly encouraged Toomey to run) are going to be willing to oppose him in a primary.

Pennsylvania political observers agree that Specter’s campaign savvy and willingness to reach out to opponents as an election nears are unmatched.

“When Arlen gets going politically, he is totally amazing,” one state Republican told me. “He’s totally calculating. The first year after an election, he does what he pleases. Then he starts his re-election campaign. His votes fall in line with his fellow Republicans; he visits every county, and, because he is on Appropriations, he delivers projects for the state. And his office is very good when it comes to casework.”

The White House has already reiterated its support for Specter, and the state’s junior Senator, conservative Rick Santorum (R), will also support his more moderate colleague. Four Republican Members of Congress from Pennsylvania have already endorsed the Senator, and the state party is certain to formally back him. [IMGCAP(2)]

Toomey, on the other hand, currently has the support of 21 of the state’s 109 GOP state Representatives, according to a list provided by the Congressman’s campaign. He is likely to receive relatively little institutional support for his challenge.

The challenger dismisses Specter’s endorsements, saying they are to be expected and don’t reflect grassroots discontent with the Senator’s record. But Toomey, who had 7 percent favorable statewide name identification among Republicans in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, needs established political figures to introduce him to voters around the state and give his campaign credibility.

Toomey’s charges that Specter is too liberal are likely to be less effective if Santorum, for example, is vouching for the Senator in direct mail or President Bush is urging Republicans to renominate Specter in TV ads. And Specter’s record on firearms issues will make it difficult from Toomey to rally gun-control opponents, a key Pennsylvania constituency, behind his challenge.

Money is likely to determine how serious Toomey’s bid will be, and the state’s geography figures to be a complicating factor for him.

Specter has run six times statewide (including two primary losses in the 1970s), and the former Philadelphia district attorney is well-known in the city’s media market, the fourth most expensive in the country.

On the other hand, Lehigh and Northampton counties, which make up most of Toomey’s 15th district, are the fringe of the Philadelphia media market, leaving them (and their Congressman) largely ignored.

Toomey begins his campaign with less than $700,000 in the bank compared to $6 million for Specter. The Congressman won’t estimate how much he’ll need to spend to win, but veterans of state politics estimate the figure to be about $4 million. That’s the amount that Tom Ridge (who was then a Member of Congress) spent in the four-way 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary that he won. Ridge, of course, was seeking a state office and was not restrained by the federal fundraising limits that will hamper Toomey’s money chase.

“You need to spend $2 million on TV just to get people’s attention,” says one veteran of state politics who predicts that Specter will take steps to cut off the Congressman’s fundraising from traditional Pennsylvania Republican sources.

Even allies of Toomey acknowledge that the Congressman’s challenge depends on his fundraising ability. “There is a clear path for Toomey if he can raise the money. And that’s a big ‘if,’” says one supporter.

The Club for Growth raised about $500,000 for California GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon last year, but that was a state race. Their biggest financial effort for federal candidates was in New Jersey’s 5th district, where they raised about $300,000 in “hard dollars.”

With the doubling of individual contribution limits this cycle, the Club should “hit $500,000 for Toomey rather easily,” according to one supporter of the Congressman.

Toomey’s initial strategy appears to be to use Specter’s support of legal abortion to paint the Senator as out of step with Republican voters. That’s a reasonable place to start for the challenger, but it isn’t without its difficulties.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) has made it clear that a bill banning partial-birth abortions will come to the floor this session, and conservative activists say that they expect Specter to support it. If he does, he undercuts Toomey’s message, or at least forces the Congressman to change the nature of his attacks.

In addition, Toomey is already being accused by critics of exaggerating his pro-life credentials. He was not the pro-life favorite in the Republican primary in 1998, but he became the preferred pro-life general election candidate that year when his opponent, then-state legislator Roy Afflerbach (D), was endorsed by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

The (Allentown) Morning Call reported a couple of weeks before that election that both Toomey and Afflerbach “say they support a woman’s right to have an abortion, although Toomey thinks abortion should be legal only in the first trimester and limited by waiting periods and notification requirements.”

Specter is taking Toomey’s challenge seriously, and that means he will come out swinging.

“Specter’s campaign isn’t going to run a rope-a-dope campaign. They will go after [Toomey],” says one Republican who knows Specter’s modus operandi.

Toomey, who has been planning this challenge at least since he was first elected to the House in 1998, has one other problem. Insiders describe the Congressman as a “micro-manager” whose political instincts “are not very good.” He’ll need great instincts and skill to win this one.

Toomey will be relying on a new consulting team to direct his effort. John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates will handle polling, while Jon Lerner of Red Sea will do the campaign’s advertising. The Club for Growth has relied on and continues to use Red Sea for its polling and advertising, which is bound to raise some interesting questions during the primary.

Specter’s polling will be handled by Glen Bolger and Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. David Garth has handled Specter’s media in the past. The Senator’s son, Shanin, is expected once again to play a major role in the campaign.

The bottom line? Specter hasn’t had a tough race in a dozen years, and he could give Toomey a campaign issue or two with his votes between now and April 27, 2004, when the party picks its nominee. But if Toomey expects to be delivering most of the attacks in the race, he is in for a surprise. Specter is a pit bull.

The outcome is likely to be close — very possibly in the single digits. And close primary races can go either way, depending on turnout and relatively minor campaign developments. But while Toomey could easily hold Specter to 55 percent of the vote or less, it’s difficult to see the Congressman winning the nomination. And close counts in horseshoes, not politics.

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