On the trail with Arlen Specter.
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For his part, Toomey seems underprepared for the role he’s been cast in. His campaign must be one of the most poorly run in modern memory (more on this shortly) and the endorsement of Bush has knocked everyone for a loop. Toomey had expected the White House to stay out of the race or at least offer only token opposition to his challenge; Bush and Specter reframing the race as Toomey vs. Bush, and blanketing the airwaves with millions of dollars in paid ads to reinforce this impression, has complicated things.
In one important sense, Toomey should have seen this coming. Much of the support for his campaign, in and out of state, is an attempt to send a warning to George W. Bush and steer his party in a more principled, explicitly conservative direction. But rather than playing up the David and Goliath dynamic that Bush’s intervention creates, Toomey refuses to toss a feather at the president, opting instead for talk of the opportunity that this election presents to voters, along with a few obligatory digs at the guy he’s running against.
Toomey tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the current “center-right coalition” in American politics had been a long time coming. “And it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal whether we seize this chance and actually advance the cause that we say we believe in — limited government, lower taxes, less government spending, the free-enterprise system, and personal freedom and personal responsibility and traditional values — that set of ideals that brought us together as a party.” On the Monday before the April 27 primary, he holds out an olive branch to the president, allowing that “everyone’s entitled to one mistake.”
From a reporter’s perspective, trying to deal with Team Toomey is a nightmare. Phone calls are never returned, the website isn’t updated, promises are routinely broken, none of the staffers have the authority to answer simple questions about scheduling, there is a dearth of events outside of boring, rote press conferences, and it costs a pound of flesh to get a copy of the candidate’s itinerary for even those events.
At the Lancaster Host Resort, I enter an event listed as “open to the public” and am promptly kicked out of the conference hall; no press allowed. Now it so happens that I had spent a week calling the campaign to be sure that this sort of thing didn’t happen, and was specifically told by a Toomey press flak that everything was kosher, come on up. But now he is nowhere in sight and the young volunteers aren’t buying it.
Outside, I’m accused of being a member of the Specter campaign by someone who misheard my Spectator affiliation. After I go to my car and get a business card to prove I am not, in fact, with the senator’s campaign, I’m eventually admitted to a press conference for print reporters, hastily arranged in response to our disbarment from an event that was supposed to be open to everyone. Back inside, I am set upon by a shaggy-haired college age staffer with small gold hoop earrings, who, somewhere in his testosterone-addled pea brain, somehow decides I am with Specter again. “You’ve got a lot of balls coming in here,” college dude tells me. I’m so angry that I begin making mental notes on how to file a story from the county jail after this thing comes down to fisticuffs.
The official Toomey campaign is so screwed up that Toomey supporters organize themselves, going to what seemed like every intersection in central Pennsylvania. These volunteers armed with loud voices and bright yellow signs are shockingly passionate — and considerably more effective and polite than his paid staff. Part of their allure is they are political novices, innocent and convinced the righteous will prevail. Many have never worked on a campaign before, and, as such, are not surprised by the national media’s attention to the race. To hear them tell it, this is the most important race since…well, since ever.
“If the election was going to be decided on bumper stickers and signs, it’d be Toomey in a landslide,” one 22-year-old college student tells me. “I can’t imagine Toomey losing. We’ve got the candidate, we’ve got the truth, and we’ve got the energy to take ‘em both to the polls.” It is obvious there is some naivete at work here, but it is refreshing. The “there’s no way we can lose” triumphalism is nearly universally held among Toomey’s volunteers. Meanwhile, Specter is paying $75 a day to college students to get them out canvassing neighborhoods on his behalf.
All of this makes for a nail-biter on election night. With the race a statistical tie in the polls, nobody rushes to call it, and the vote count swings back and forth for half the evening. At 11 p.m., television screens put the race at 50-50. Only well after midnight does the AP declare Specter the victor by less than two points.
Despite the close loss, there is surprisingly little sorrow at Toomey’s primary night party at a Fogelsville Holiday Inn. With Toomey expected to stick to his pledge not to serve more than three terms in the House, most supporters still look at this as the beginning of something — not the end. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, some begin to whisper about a November run for the governorship. “I’m not sure what he should do, but I know he should do something,” a young woman festooned with Toomey buttons and stickers says. “He’s the best we’ve got and we can’t lose him.”
By all accounts, Specter’s headquarters is nearly empty, and his victory speech uninspired. But, of course, revelers are not the lifeblood of democracy, voters are. Toomey has the better party, but Specter has the better night.
Although it may be difficult for conservatives smarting from the loss to see, the Toomey/Specter race was ultimately a victory for the cause. By coming so close, Toomey’s supporters proved that cash and clout can be diminished by principles and ideals — a feat Campaign Finance advocates had lectured us was impossible. This story will likely incite others to stage their own (hopefully better orchestrated) rebellions. Pat Toomey deserves to be commended.
Specter, already the longest-serving senator in the state’s history, will be 80 by the time his seat comes up again. This will be his last term. It’s anybody’s guess how long his gratitude to President Bush will last. Only then will we know exactly how grave Bush’s “one mistake” truly was.
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