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Reagan Defeats Specter

Senator keeps his promise of "hard hardball" by leaving GOP -- leaving Toomey the frontrunner?

By 4.29.09

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Arlen Specter has kept his promise.

As he told me over a week ago in an exclusive for The American Spectator, he was going to play "hard hardball."

Yesterday, staring at polls that had him losing a Republican primary to his 2004 rival former Congressman Pat Toomey, Specter did just that. Stunning the political world in both Pennsylvania and Washington, Specter became a Democrat.

Yet one of the "hard, hardball" facts of political life here in this state is that from the grave, Ronald Reagan has carried Pennsylvania one more time. This time, just as in 1980 when Reagan and Arlen Specter were on the ballot simultaneously, it is Reagan's conservative views that received the most votes, with Specter's old-fashioned GOP moderation coming in second.

There's more to all of this that is perhaps not obvious to those outside Pennsylvania.

Here's a Reagan-Specter story never told before.

It's 1986. Arlen Specter has won re-nomination by the Pennsylvania Republican Party for a second term in the U.S. Senate. But there's a problem. An unhappy conservative with some name recognition in one area of the state is toying publicly with running as a third candidate in the fall election between Specter and then Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar, a liberal minister from suburban Philadelphia who later became president of the left-wing National Council of Churches.

A call came into the Reagan White House. Senator Specter wanted President Reagan's help in convincing this potential third candidate not to run. President Reagan, wanting to re-elect the Republican Senate that had shockingly come in on his coattails in 1980, promised to help. Well out of the state political spotlight a White House political aide was sent to Harrisburg to meet with the prospective third party candidate. The secret meeting took place with the then-Republican State chairman in the offices of the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee. Just the state chairman, the potential third candidate, and the Reagan guy.

A conversation was held. The usual reasons for supporting a party nominee were given by both the state chairman and the president's aide: the nominee (Specter) has been chosen, the President needs a Republican Senate, Senator Specter has raised a lot of money. This went nowhere. No sale. The third potential candidate, incensed at Arlen Specter's record, was still determined to do this. Finally, the White House aide pulled out a videotape and the state chairman hastily slipped it into a pre-arranged VCR. There, on screen in living color was an exclusive look at a tape that would not hit the airwaves in Pennsylvania for weeks: Arlen Specter and Ronald Reagan walking alone together along the West Wing colonnade outside the Oval Office, the Rose Garden in view. Reagan's inimitable velvety voice filled the room. In typical Reagan style, you would have thought that with the possible exception of Nancy he looked alone to Arlen Specter to ease his burdens as they bore down in those awesome precincts.

Watching this, potential candidate number three paled. There was a request for the Reagan guy to come home with him and show this to the man's wife. It was done. The man withdrew.

I know this because I was that White House aide.

In other words, the moderate Republican who came in second in Pennsylvania to the conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980 felt forced to turn to Reagan personally to save his seat in 1986. It may not have been necessary, but the point was that Specter felt that it was. Reagan, happily, agreed to help.

What does this mean in the light of Specter's decision to bolt the Republican Party and run as a Democrat for re-election in the 2010 election for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania?

Several things.

First.

For decades Pennsylvania was viewed as one of the key inner rings of the Eastern Republican Establishment. It should be noted that in the tumultuous1964 election in which Barry Goldwater and the conservative movement wrenched control of the national GOP from Eastern moderates, the last-minute "Stop-Goldwater" candidate was Pennsylvania GOP liberal governor William W. Scranton. Today, Scranton's son and namesake, a popular ex-Lieutenant Governor, is in fact one of the movers in the Pennsylvania conservative movement. Not exactly Khrushchev's son becoming an American citizen, but for Pennsylvania Republicans it has been duly noted.

Beginning in 1976 and the fight for the party between Reagan and the moderate Gerald Ford, there have been nine presidential elections. Of those nine, Republican nominees running as moderates have headed the ballot six times -- and lost six out of six. That would include Gerald Ford, who defeated a challenge from Reagan himself in 1976; George H.W. Bush, who successfully ran as Reagan's heir in 1988 and carried Pennsylvania -- but ran as a moderate in 1992 and lost to Bill Clinton;  the moderate Senate leader and Ford running-mate Bob Dole, who lost in 1996. Next was George W. Bush running on the much ballyhooed platform of "compassionate conservatism" -- who then lost the state in both 2000 and 2004. Last was Senator John McCain, who spent a career in the Senate as the Republican repeatedly acclaimed for his moderation by Democrats but lost Pennsylvania to Obama in 2008. Of the remaining three elections, the openly conservative Reagan won twice, in 1980 and 1984, with  Bush 41, running fervently (if, as events proved, inaccurately) as Reagan's heir in 1988.

In other words, for all the rhetoric in the air about how the GOP in Pennsylvania is pushing out moderates, the hard fact is that moderate Republicans have failed miserably in recent history to carry the state in presidential elections. When push came to shove Specter needed Reagan himself to get him over the hump in 1980 and specifically asked for his help in 1986.

All of this is another way of saying that the Pennsylvania Republican Party, after decades of losing presidential elections with moderates and depending on Reagan to get Specter the push he needed to win two state-wide elections in row, is effectively acknowledging its titular leader is a former president from California who passed away in 2004. Twenty-four years after he beat Arlen Specter when their names were on the same ballot together, 18 years after Specter felt compelled to turn to that same president for help in keeping his seat, Ronald Reagan -- through the stand-in candidacy of former Congressman Pat Toomey -- has triumphed once again.  

Second. A word here about Toomey. Toomey's service in Congress comes from being elected from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. For those not familiar with the state, this is not exactly the beating heart of far right-wing extremism. There are some spots in Pennsylvania where that term might be applied. Toomey's district, which included Allentown and Bethlehem, is not one of them. As Specter himself has noted in his memoirs Passion for Truth, the Lehigh Valley is a very diverse high-tech section of the state, much more representative of the state as a whole than some other districts. A political base in this area is every bit as strong as Scranton in the Northeast (the home of Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey) and Erie in the Northwest (home of moderate ex-GOP Governor Tom Ridge). Toomey, running as a Reaganite, is nothing if not mainstream in a state that elected Reagan twice.

Third. Arlen Specter has two very important longtime friends in the Democratic Party. The first is his former deputy in the Philadelphia District Attorney's office who was also a neighbor -- Governor Ed Rendell. The other is the man with whom he spent years sharing train rides home from Washington -- Vice President Joe Biden of neighboring Delaware. Between the two, they have been working on Specter to switch parties for years. Now that he has, this means money, money, and more money for Specter's race. Rendell yesterday pledged to contribute $2,300 personally to Specter, saying with a laugh that Specter corrected him and said the maximum was $2,400. And just as he put the arm on Ronald Reagan in 1986, the Obama White House says a conversation between Obama and Specter took place within hours of Specter's decision to switch. Obama has eagerly agreed to step up to the plate with a promise of presidential help.

Fourth. Arlen Specter is in good health. Having spent some time with him a week ago, I can say his mental acuity is sharp, his energy level good. He believes in what he likes to call "centrism" and certainly has a vivid record of upsetting just about everyone on all sides to prove it. There is an elephant in the room here, however, and it was certainly mentioned often, if quietly enough, even before Specter's party switch or Toomey's entrance into the race. The elephant? This is a man who will celebrate his 80th birthday next February, turning 81 a month after he would be sworn into what would be his sixth term. Whatever one wants to say about the politics of Pennsylvania, it is a big, diverse, industrial state. It is not the smaller West Virginia, home to the just-re-elected 91-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd, or South Carolina, represented in the Senate until he died at 101 by the late Republican Strom Thurmond. Senators in their 80s are not, historically, Pennsylvania's thing, regardless of party. Even the very vigorous Specter will have to endure the spoken -- and perhaps more consequentially the unspoken -- comparisons to a younger opponent, whether it is Toomey or anyone else. Quite aside from ideology, this may or may not be fair. But surely it is a rather simple confirmation that this election will be "hard, hardball" indeed, just as Specter predicted.

These last two points are important. Both the 64-year-old Rendell, who is term limited and thus will not be on the ballot for anything in 2010, and his friend Arlen Specter have been running for office in this state in one election or another since 1965, when Specter was first elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. In addition to each man serving multiple terms as district attorney, both have run at different times for mayor of Philadelphia (Specter lost, Rendell won) governor (Rendell won, Specter lost) and, of course, Specter has run six times for U.S. Senator, winning five of six elections to make him the longest serving Senator in Pennsylvania history. They have perhaps inevitably morphed into the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of Pennsylvania Politics: Grumpy Old Men, the Political Sequel. Starring a seat in the U.S. Senate as Ann-Margret. 

Does Toomey have a lock on the GOP nomination? No. The news of Specter's switch to the Democrats has set off a wild scramble within the state GOP among several potential candidates who only hours earlier had not the slightest intention of running for senator in 2010. Lieutenant Governor Joe Scarnati is one name being mentioned. Scarnati is lieutenant governor only because a quirk in the state constitution allows the state senate president -- which he still is -- to become the state's number two upon a vacancy in the lieutenant governor's office. This vacancy occurred with the unexpected death of Democrat Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, Rendell's running mate. This has lifted a once-obscure but youthful and respected legislator to a position of hard-to-get statewide prominence. Also being discussed is moderate GOP Congressman Jim Gerlach from Bucks County (suburban Philadelphia). And a list of others.  Perhaps a bit miffed is Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, also from suburban Philadelphia, who was much discussed as a Democrat with the ability to beat Specter or Toomey. Two other Democrats, an ex-Rendell aide and a state legislator, have quickly been swept aside by Specter's sudden arrival with the blessing of Rendell.

There is one irony in all of this. At his press conference in Washington today, Specter jumped repeatedly on the idea that as a moderate he was being pushed out of the party by the right wing. This seems at first take not to be a saleable point. The truth is that it is not a vote on any social issue that proved to be Specter's undoing with Republicans. Only weeks ago Toomey was prepping for a governor's race and Specter's path seemed clear in both the primary and general. It was instead Specter's decision to be one of only three Republicans in the entire Congress -- both Senate and House -- to vote for the Obama stimulus package. A vote the fiscally conservative Pennsylvania Republican rank-and-file overwhelmingly perceives as a stupendously irresponsible fiscal spending measure. Decidedly, in other words, not a Reagan thing to do. The resulting firestorm suddenly had Toomey switching races and Specter, the presumed sure thing for renomination, abruptly exiting the party simply to stand a chance of survival. The battle of ideas on economics, with Specter taking the pro-big government side and Toomey the small business and taxpayer side, is now spectacularly on.

In his press conference Specter also snapped that there should be a "rebellion" within the Pennsylvania Republican Party at the supposed pushing of moderates out of the party. What he seemed not ready to admit is that rebellion is exactly what is happening in Pennsylvania politics. 

Unfortunately for Arlen Specter, he's being cast as King George the Third.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.