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Gang of Three

Three Senate races could hold the answer to conservatives' prayers.

By 3.31.04

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For some conservatives dissatisfied with President Bush's lurches to the left on spending, immigration, Medicare and education, three Senate races could hold the answer to their prayers. The nomination of Rep. Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), and former Reps. Tom Coburn (Oklahoma) and Bob Schaffer (Colorado) to the Senate could change the layout of the body so that it might push the President in a more rightward direction.

In Pennsylvania, Bush has endorsed incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, and even backed him for chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Sen. Orrin Hatch gives up the gavel next year. At first glance, this appears odd to anyone comparing Specter's and Bush's stances on the courts.

Specter has voted many times to pass resolutions declaring that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided. He played the key role in killing the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Bork, according to Specter, failed to see the constitution as "a living, growing document." Specter, in his memoirs, also expressed some regret about his yes votes for Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Bush, meanwhile, has said he wants to appoint more judges like Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The White House maintains Roe was wrongly decided.

On closer look, Bush's stance makes sense. The White House has made it clear, even sending clear signals to conservative senators, that Bush would like to nominate to the high court White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales, on the Texas Supreme Court, helped to gut a parental notification requirement for abortionists. With Specter in charge of the judge battle, the White House will have a great excuse to nominate Gonzales.

BUT THINGS WILL LOOK very different if the three conservatives win. First, if Toomey knocks off Specter, conservative Jon Kyl (Arizona) would take the Judiciary gavel.

Second, Tom Coburn would not be intimidated by a White House set on selling out its base. Coburn regularly stood against House GOP leadership during his six years in the House, and he would do so again. If Bush tried to appoint a judge such as Gonzales, Coburn, long before any other Republican senator, would stand against the White House. And Bob Schaffer, who had a similar habit of bucking the party line in the House, would likely stand with his freshman colleague and be the voice of cultural conservatives.

In the Senate, individual members have much more clout than they do in the House. Whereas Coburn, Schaffer, and Toomey were only able to ruffle feathers in the lower body, they could turn things on their head in the Senate. From nominations to appropriations, the fear of a handful of bona fide conservatives speaking to their heart's content about White House failings could impel Bush to take a couple steps back to the right.

Specter and Co. often apply leftward pressure to Bush. Toomey, Coburn, and Schaffer could tug in the other direction. But the odds of all three men ending up in the Senate are not great.

Toomey is climbing in the polls for the April 27 primary, but Specter has already outspent Toomey by almost five to one, and still has nearly $10 million on hand. Schaffer, on the other hand, has an inside track to the Republican nomination, but is facing an uphill climb in November against popular state attorney general Ken Salazar.

Coburn, the most conservative of the three, is also the strongest of the three. His entrance into Oklahoma's open Senate race has recharged the state's Republican Party. Because Coburn comes from the same congressional district as Democrat Brad Carson, Carson's greatest advantage is wiped away if Coburn can beat Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphries in the GOP primary.

The April 27 primary in Pennsylvania, and July 27 contest in Oklahoma, will set the stage for a November in which conservatives could make inroads into the U.S. Senate.

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About the Author

Timothy P. Carney is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money (Wiley).