As Pennsylvania Republicans head to the polls today to decide a close race for Senate nominee, they may pause to wonder why President Bush and Rick Santorum back incumbent squish Arlen Specter over Rep. Pat Toomey when the latter has received such universal accolades throughout the conservative press. It's a question that conservatives have met mostly with sniping: Specter's "chief (some might say only) virtue is that he is the incumbent," writes Stephen Hayes in the Weekly Standard; the primary pits real Republicans against "those in Washington who see the GOP primarily as a tool for self-advancement and self-preservation," adds Tim Carney on National Review Online. A more serious answer is warranted.
There is no question that Arlen Specter has a much better chance of beating the Democratic nominee, Joe Hoeffel, than Pat Toomey will if he wins today; Hoeffel may even start off with a slight advantage against Toomey. With a closely divided Senate, the chance that Democrats could retake the Senate this year must give us pause. It can be plausibly argued that the odds of losing the Senate, given the seats that are in play, are remote enough that conservatives should prefer to do without Specter, even if it means a diminished majority. Specter is due to ascend to the head of the Judiciary committee, and his influence there would be so malign, goes this argument, that he should be denied reelection regardless of his successor.
While it's true that Democrats, on balance, face tougher Senate challenges this year, an upset is not impossible, and a Specter-chaired Judiciary certainly couldn't be any worse than one dominated by the likes of Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy. But granted, this is not the most likely scenario. More important is the effect that Toomey's candidacy might have on the presidential race.
Pennsylvania is the jugular vein of the Blue State coalition, an accessible target -- polls show the President running even with or slightly ahead of John Kerry in the Keystone State -- and a deadly one. If Kerry retains all the states that Gore won in 2000 except for Pennsylvania, he can pick up an electoral vote-rich state like Florida or Ohio and still lose. This doesn't mean it's impossible for Kerry to win without Pennsylvania, but it would be significantly more difficult; he would have to pick up a large swing and pick up one or two smaller states (like Nevada or New Hampshire) and retain all other Gore states. You can bet that Karl Rove has looked very carefully at the electoral dynamics in Pennsylvania.
There are some, like John J. Miller (who helped touch-off the pro-Toomey fever on the Right with his National Review cover story pronouncing Specter "The Worst Republican Senator"), who argue that Specter will not help Bush because the base will be more important than the middle in this election. I'm not at all convinced that that's true, particularly in the case of Pennsylvania. At the very least, the base strategy seems higher-risk: Toomey may excite conservatives, but he's also likely to galvanize liberals. Toomey could very well become a figure that liberals successfully define as an extremist, and serve as a tool for scaring moderates. A humdrum Senate race, where Specter remains the frontrunner for months, keeps the focus on Bush, who (polls show) can appeal to Pennsylvania moderates on his own terms.
If Pat Toomey does win today, let's hope that his candidacy does not prove to be a gamble gone terribly wrong. As a Senator, Toomey would surely be preferable to Specter. But Specter in the Senate and Bush in the White House are just as surely preferable to Hoeffel and Kerry.
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