On the main site, Jeffrey Lord has a great exclusive story on Arlen Specter’s decision to stand and fight Pat Toomey for Pennsylvania’s Republican senatorial nomination in 2010. Toomey is obviously going to focus on Specter’s votes with the Democratic majority. For his part, Specter is blaming Toomey for the fact a Democratic majority exists in the first place:
Without missing a beat, speaking without notes, Specter zeroed in specifically on Toomey and the Club, charging the latter with “cannibalistic tactics” that had lost the GOP control of the US Senate in 2006.
“Toomey represents the Club for Growth which has engaged in cannibalistic tactics. When they fought [now defeated GOP Senator Lincoln] Chafee in the Rhode Island primary, spent all his money, beat him in the general, that cost us control of the Senate. In the Senate…we would have controlled the Senate had we retained Chafee’s seat in 2007 and 2008.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not support a primary challenge to Lincoln Chafee in 2006 because I personally wanted the Republican Party to maintain some diversity of opinion on the Iraq war, which was then the biggest millstone dragging the party down, even though I was closer to conservative challenger Steve Laffey on almost all other questions. But Specter’s conclusion is debatable, to say the least.
For starters, if you look at the polling Chafee was in the same position both before and after the primary — competitive but clearly in trouble. Chafee was last over 50 percent in April; the Republican primary was held in September. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse first took the lead in June. The general-election contest again tightened at the tail end of the campaign, with Chafee and Whitehouse effectively tied in the final polls. Maybe Chafee would have pulled it out if he could have spent all his money and focused all of his attention on Whitehouse. More likely, the undecideds would have been swept up by the Democratic tide and broken against a GOP incumbent anyway.
Second, despite the contentious Chafee-Laffey primary exit polls showed Chafee winning 94 percent of Republican voters against Whitehouse in November. Chafee also took 74 percent of conservatives while Whitehouse carried 76 percent of liberals. Chafee also drew 88 percent of those who approved of the job George W. Bush was doing as president.
Finally, if the GOP’s control of the Senate came down to Chafee how secure would that control have been? Chafee was so liberal that he made Arlen Specter look like Jesse Helms. His lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 37 out of 100. In 2005, he scored just 12 out of 100 — the same rating as Hillary Clinton, a point worse than Russ Feingold. That same year, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action rated Chafee 75 out of 100.
That means even if Chafee caucused with the Republicans, the party would have had no better than nominal control. And there is no guarantee Chafee would have caucused with Republicans. Shortly after losing his Senate race, he suggested he had remained a Republican only to help Rhode Island secure federal funding from a GOP majority. He answered yes when a reporter asked if he thought his defeat by a Democrat helped the country by costing Republicans control of the Senate. And he eventually bolted the party, becoming an independent. Had Chafee been re-elected, there would have been enormous pressure on him to pull a Jim Jeffords and not much reason to think he would have resisted.
Now, the decision to invest resources in Laffey’s primary campaign can be reasonably second-guessed (the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee obviously reached a different conclusion). Chafee was likelier to retain the seat; Republicans who can win in Rhode Island are rare (though Gov. Donald Carcieri held on in 2006 despite being to Chafee’s right). Similarly, I’m not sure that now is the time to primary Specter.
But a Republican Party that owes its power to Lincoln Chafee isn’t going to be in power for very long. In his campaign against Toomey, Specter needs to make sure his fellow Republicans don’t reach the same conclusion about him.