With Pat Toomey apparently putting a 2010 Senate race back on the table, conservatives are once again faced with that age-old question: What to do about Arlen Specter? I'm planning on doing a piece looking at the impact conservative primary challenges have had, for both good and ill, on the GOP (though it's no secret that I've personally supported many such challenges in the past). But I don't think what should be done about Specter at this point is an easy call. All candidate preferences that follow in this post are strictly my personal opinion and don't reflect anyone else's at this magazine.
In 2004, the case for primarying Specter seemed pretty solid. Republicans had a Senate majority they seemed likely to expand with at least several Southern pickups. Ultimately, they came out of that election with a 55-45 advantage. Toomey was well to Specter's right and as a congressman who had won in a Democratic-leaning district was not a sure general election loser, even if he would have had a tougher time holding the seat than Specter.
Under those political conditions, it was probably worth rolling the dice. And I think a similarly decent case could be made that Toomey's challenge -- and the equally unsuccessful subsequent conservative campaign against Specter as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman -- made Specter more cooperative with conservatives than he might otherwise have been.
Coming on six years later, the Republicans barely cling to enough Senate seats to threaten the occasional filibuster. Retirements in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, and even Kansas potentially give the Democrats additional pickup opportunities. Jim Bunning is looking shaky in Kentucky. Under these political conditions, it seems that keeping a Senate seat in the hands of even a lousy Republican is worthwhile.
Specter's lifetime American Conservative Union ratings are better than every Democrat in the Senate except Ben Nelson's. His 2007 ratings were better than every Senate Democrat except Mary Landrieu, whom he tied (she was up for reelection in 2008). Specter will frustrate conservatives, but he won't switch party affiliations like Jim Jeffords did and Lincoln Chafee might have done if reelected.
But then again: Specter's reelect numbers aren't very good. The coverage tends to focus on his unpopularity with Republicans, but a majority of state voters say they would prefer to see someone else in that seat. That may not mean anything -- a lot of Massachusetts voters told pollsters they wanted a senator other than John Kerry in 2008, before they went on to reelect him with his biggest margin ever -- but it does suggest Specter is not a lock to win reelection this time around.
Second, Specter's unreliability comes at a great cost on important issues. He was pivotal in the passage of the $787 billion ($1 trillion, with interest) stimulus package. He may play a similar role on card check. He gives the Obama administration's policies a veneer of bipartisan support. If he is going to be singlehandedly responsible for some of the GOP's biggest legislative defeats, is it really essential to have his vote on less important issues?
I don't know the answer yet. But it's definitely something worth thinking about. Especially for conservative Republicans in Pennsylvania.
UPDATE: A blogger at the Next Right weighs in against a Specter primary challenge.
UPDATE II: Matt Lewis has Toomey's statement.
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