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Handicapping Pennsylvania: Does Toomey Have a Chance to Win?

The Guest Observer in this newspaper’s May 18 edition, written by Brian Wild, who worked as chief of staff to then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), makes some interesting claims about Toomey’s prospects in the 2010 Pennsylvania Senate race.

[IMGCAP(1)]Wild begins by asserting that unidentified “Washington … experts’— want to deny that Toomey’s “dominance in polls is what led Specter to jump ship.—

This is a curious comment because every thoughtful discussion that I’ve heard about Specter’s party switch notes that he left the GOP because he was trailing badly in the polls and couldn’t beat Toomey in a primary. Specter even said so. There is no debate about that.

Wild also asserts that one of the reasons why Toomey can win a general election is “because he has won three elections in a Democratic-leaning Congressional district.— I’ve heard the district characterized this way before, and it is simply wrong.

Pennsylvania’s 15th district, which Toomey represented for three terms (starting in 1998), is and has been a competitive district since Don Ritter (R) won it in 1978. GOP Congressional nominees have won 12 of the past 15 House races in the district, which has remained a Northampton County-Lehigh County district with only minor changes since the early 1980s.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried the district by a single point in 2004, at the same time that Rep. Charlie Dent (R) was winning an open House seat, and Democrat Al Gore won it narrowly — 49 percent to 47 percent — in 2000, even while Toomey was being re-elected.

The 15th was and is a tossup district. The Dec. 12, 1997, issue of the Rothenberg Political Report concluded with the observation that “Republicans would be no worse than even money with either [state Sen. Joe] Uliana or Toomey as their nominee— in the open seat, and in the January 1996 and May 1998 issues, the Cook Political Report rated the House races in this district as tossups both when Rep. Paul McHale (D) was running for re-election in 1996 and when the seat was open in 1998.

Interestingly, Wild conveniently omits the fact that Toomey outspent his opponent in 1998, former state Sen. Roy Afflerbach (D), by 2-to-1, $1 million to $562,000 — certainly a factor in Toomey’s surprisingly easy 10-point victory that year.

Wild’s strangest point may well be his suggestion that Sen. Rick Santorum (R) lost re-election in 2006 because his base abandoned him. “And why did the base abandon the conservative Santorum?— Wild asks. “Because Santorum endorsed Specter in the 2006 elections.— (Note to Wild: Santorum endorsed Specter’s 2004 re-election bid.)

This is the most bizarre explanation of Santorum’s defeat that I have ever heard.

There are many contributing factors for Santorum’s defeat — George W. Bush’s unpopularity, the war in Iraq, the fundamental strength of challenger then-state Treasurer Bob Casey (D), and the perception that Santorum was intolerant and too conservative — but the idea that Santorum, who drew just 41 percent of the vote, lost because his base abandoned him is delusional.

Wild criticizes “the same old conventional wisdom,— which he defines as the view that “a purple’ state should be represented by a purple politician, that voters prefer moderates and political pragmatists more than candidates who actually take a stand and have a core philosophy, and, importantly, that incumbency and a long political résumé are more important than new ideas and energy.—

I really don’t know where this guy gets this stuff, but he needs to start talking to smarter people and stop creating straw men.

Individual states elect a wide range of Senators, depending on the nature of the election cycle, the popularity and party of the sitting president and the qualities of the candidates. Incumbency usually is an asset, but not always, as Republicans found out in 2006 and 2008.

Iowa voters seem content with Republican Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. There was a time when North Carolina voters were represented by Sens. Jesse Helms (R) and John Edwards (D). Pennsylvanians elected Specter and Santorum.

Finally, Wild’s assertions that passion is important and that voters want conviction and principle are correct. But Toomey won’t be the only candidate with conviction, passion and principle, and if passion were enough to win elections, Texas Rep. Ron Paul would have been the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

When I first met Toomey during his 1998 race for Congress, I found him to be bright, articulate and extremely personable. He has been in and around politics and fundraising for more than a decade, and I don’t think anyone should dismiss him or his abilities out of hand. In fact, I can imagine circumstances under which he could win the Pennsylvania Senate race.

But Toomey is not the frontrunner in that race, notwithstanding Wild’s assertion that he is.

No public poll has shown Toomey ahead in the general election contest, while at least three surveys showed him trailing Specter by 6 points to as many as 20 points.

Moreover, recent voting trends and party registration figures show Pennsylvania inching toward the Democrats. The latest figures from the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office show 4.3 million registered Democrats and only 3.1 million Republicans, and the gap has been growing. Over the past decade, Democratic Party registration increased by more than 850,000 voters, while GOP registration increased by fewer than 100,000 voters.

Registration figures alone, of course, don’t tell the whole story, but neither can they be ignored.

Santorum, the only modern conservative Republican to win a Senate race in the state, was first elected in 1994, one of the great Republican political waves in recent history. The GOP brand is much weaker than it was in 1994, and it is unlikely 2010 will produce a mammoth GOP wave.

Toomey will have to fight a media and Democratic caricature of him as an intolerant right-winger who drove Specter out of the GOP and who wants a litmus test for the Republican Party. That’s not an ideal starting point for a statewide race against a candidate who has been elected five times and has a reputation of doing what he needs to in order to win.

Toomey is sharp and should not be underestimated, especially given the many question marks about the contest. But wild assertions, straw men and selective memory are no way to evaluate a Senate contest.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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