Political Hay

Toomey Defeats Specter

Pennsylvania conservatives strike back against liberal Republican leadership.

By 5.19.06

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"The Toomey-Specter race took place two years ago, but the votes are still coming in tonight."

That was the observation of one Pennsylvanian, an establishment Republican, as he watched the primary returns Tuesday night. Still upset by last year's pay raise, Republican primary voters sent packing two state legislative leaders, David J. "Chip" Brightbill, Senate majority leader, and Robert Jubelirer, Senate president pro tempore. Over a dozen House incumbents were also turned out of office. Speaking to TAS on the condition of anonymity, the Republican said Pat Toomey's 2004 primary challenge of Sen. Arlen Specter did not end with his defeat. Rather, it sparked a movement. Tuesday's primary was "a chance for us conservatives to keep voting," he said.

Though Pennsylvanians did not vote for Pat Toomey himself Tuesday, they opted for his type of candidates. To highlight a few conservative challengers, John Eichelberger, a Blair County commissioner, defeated Jubelirer with 44 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Mike Folmer, a tire salesman and one-time city councilman dubbing himself "Citizen Mike," handily ousted Brightbill, 63 to 37 percent. Gary Hornberger, Schuylkill County controller, took 51 percent to 18-year incumbent Rep. Bob Allen's 49 percent.

The election also comes as a rebuke for Arlen Specter. After the Pennsylvania Club for Growth targeted Brightbill, Jubelirer, and Allen for defeat, Specter said he was helping them all. "I have given some money and more's coming," he said at a state capitol news conference, according to Capitol Wire.

LIKE MANY PENNSYLVANIA CONSERVATIVES, Toomey, now president of the Club for Growth in Washington, had grown fed up with Republican leaders in Harrisburg, in particular their tendency to raise taxes and grow government. But last year's large, unconstitutional pay raise "really set off a firestorm," as well as a popular movement against the legislature, Toomey told TAS yesterday. Primary challengers solicited Toomey's help and advice. Once Toomey determined that they were "solid conservatives" and "serious, credible candidates," he endorsed Eichelberger, Folmer, and several others. He did so on his own behalf and not as president of the Club for Growth.

Toomey raved about the outcome yesterday but would not claim credit. "I certainly don't want to take anything away from these candidates," Toomey said. "They ran great races. They were solid on the issues."

Chris Lilik, chairman of the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania (YCOP), begs to differ. "Without Pat Toomey, we probably would have had a different outcome in these races," he said yesterday. Lilik's group emerged from the Toomey campaign, energized to promote Pennsylvania conservatism. They have dogged the state Republican leaders since the pay raise, helping organize state house rallies and printing bumper stickers reading, "Remember the Pay Raise!"

Facing off against the Republican state committee, which backed the incumbents, YCOP and the Pennsylvania Club for Growth (separate from Toomey's group) threw their weight behind the challengers. The New York Times reported that Brightbill outspent Folmer by a 20 to 1 margin and that Jubelirer raised $1.3 million for the race. Pennsylvania Club for Growth countered by running television spots for Folmer while YCOP bought radio time, Lilik said. YCOP supplemented Eichelberger's advertising with additional radio ads. In that area of Pennsylvania, where ads run around $14 to $20 per ad, YCOP's $60,000 went a long way.

Some commentators claim that the pay raise was not the primary cause for voter dissatisfaction. Jubelirer blamed "everything," from the war and gas prices to immigration. Toomey places the pay raise in a larger context as "a significant catalyst." Overall, Republicans voters ousted incumbents because they are "frustrated by a lack of commitment to principle." The pay raise was an enormous part of that, Toomey said. He cited a poll he commissioned two and a half weeks before the election that showed Chip Brightbill ahead of Mike Folmer by 44 to 24 percent. But it also showed that voters were unaware Brightbill had voted for the pay raise. Once ads hit the air pointing that out, Brightbill sunk.

However, the pay raise was not a deal breaker for Pennsylvania Republicans. Toomey noted that traditionally solid conservatives who supported the pay raise but recanted and voted to repeal, won their primaries.

What does Tuesday's primary mean for fall elections? At the state level, Sen. Rick Santorum still enjoys the support of Pennsylvania's conservatives, including Mr. Toomey. Some argue the election indicates widespread opposition to Republican incumbents, but that anger seems directed at specific legislators who have abandoned conservative principles. Santorum has been careful not to join that group, holding the line on spending and immigration, conservatives' pet peeves with Congress these days. Gov. Ed Rendell is still confident that voter ire won't affect him in his race against Lynn Swann in the fall. "Naw, my opponent supported and endorsed Sen. Jubelirer and Sen. Brightbill, the two architects of the pay raise," Rendell said. While Swann imprudently endorsed Jubelirer and Brightbill, voters may not forget that Rendell not only defended the pay raise as good legislation last summer, but brokered the deal that made it happen.

Nationally, Toomey sees the Pennsylvania primary as a harbinger for the upcoming congressional elections. Conservatives are frustrated over border security and spending, he said: "This is a very clear reminder that Republicans who don't govern as Republicans could be in big trouble. The RINOs may be in the sights of voters."

David Holman is a reporter for The American Spectator.

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David Holman is a reporter for The American Spectator.