During the epic primary battle between sitting liberal Republican Senator Arlen Specter and conservative challenger Pat Toomey, I traveled in April to a Philadelphia gun show to watch Specter try and burnish his credentials. The senator was stumping with only a few aides in tow, and dogged every step of the way by college students brandishing Toomey signs and pamphlets.
“My voters might not be as intense as his,” Specter answered when I asked him what he thought of this conservative militia following him around. “But there’s a lot more of them if I can get them out on Tuesday.”
Well, perhaps “a lot” was a bit of an overstatement on Specter’s part. A few days later Toomey lost the primary by only 17,000 or so votes out of more than a million cast. This near victory was in no small measure aided by more than $2 million of support cash from the Club for Growth, an organization Pat Toomey was (probably not) coincidentally chosen to lead this week when Stephen Moore stepped down.
Still, there was some truth to Specter’s words. The major flaw of the Toomey campaign, in my eyes anyway, was its inability to harness the power and enthusiasm of Toomey’s ever-burgeoning ranks of supporters. Perhaps it all happened too fast to know exactly what should be done. This is where one typically invokes the lucidity of hindsight, but ye shall be spared this time because the essence of Toomey’s campaign has turned out to be about the future, not the past.
HISTORICALLY, MILITIAS TEND TO disband after the last skirmish ends, especially if the militia in question came out on the wrong side of victory. Not so with the young warriors who exalted the Reaganite Toomey this past year. If anything, they’ve decided to further organize themselves with Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania (YCOP), a fiery and principled group for conservatives under 40 who are interested in grassroots activism. In the months since Toomey’s defeat, YCOP has set up 37 chapters throughout the state.
The group’s state chairman, 25-year-old Duquesne University law student Chris Lilik, has a refreshing take-no-prisoners attitude towards politics. The Scranton Times has called him “the man who nearly blogged Specter out of office.” When he describes one of his YCOP compatriots as “the next Karl Rove,” for example, it isn’t an epithet. His website Grassroots PA has been a flashpoint of this conservative revolution.
“With a little better statewide organization, conservatives would have easily come up with the extra one percent needed to put Toomey over the top,” Lilik said. “Young people are generally passionate, principled, and hard workers. By creating a massive young statewide network that cares about conservative values we have an opportunity to advance a strong conservative agenda.”
Joe Sterns, a former Toomey press secretary and current YCOP vice-chair of Grassroots Coordination, believes the Toomey campaign gave those fed up with politics as usual a glimpse at their power to actually affect change.
“Though perpetually Herculean, the battle to place principle over party is, thanks be to God, no longer Sisyphean,” Sterns said, in a mini-rhetorical tour de force. “There will always be politicians who are corrupt, not in the sense of illicit activity but rather in terms of whoring themselves out to their own self-interest. However, the deficit between principle and party is narrowing significantly.”
For many former Toomey supporters, the near success of his campaign as well as the Republican establishment backlash against it were formative experiences.
“When I heard about Pat Toomey challenging Arlen Specter, I didn’t know what the heck to do,” Lilik said. “I knew people were going to kill me if I backed Toomey, a man who I had admired for many years, and people kept telling me I was throwing my political career away. But the thought of Arlen Specter chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee sent chills down my spine. I had to back Pat.”
In the end, Toomey’s campaign may have come up short, Lilik said, but it created a conservative community willing to draw a line in the sand.
“For many of us, the Toomey race is a litmus test for whether or not you mean it when you say you are a true conservative or a party hack that only cares about power,” he said. “The major lesson is: never again.”
Thus, Lilik said, YCOP will operate as a non-partisan group that promotes conservative ideals and not a party.
“Needless to say, too many politicians base their decisions on party affiliation rather than principle and ideology,” he said, adding that it “would be irresponsible of us to give big government Republicans a pass when they vote like liberals.”
Pointing to the current red/blue divide, the rise of Republicans In Name Only, and conservative Democrats like Zell Miller, Lilik contends that putting party blinders on does a disservice to the conservative cause.
“In some districts it is impossible for a Democrat to be elected, and in others it’s impossible for a Republican to be elected,” he explained. “Isn’t it better to have a Democrat that supports tax cuts and socially conservative policies in a solid Democrat district than a Howard Dean liberal? Likewise, isn’t it better to have a Pat Toomey conservative in the solid Republican district than the Arlen Specter liberal?”
This was not all bluster and talk, Sterns said. His optimism, he contended, was results driven.
“We are amassing a grassroots strike force in every country that will mobilize behind conservative candidates and conservative policies,” he said. “Recently, we were successful in crushing the state legislators’ attempt to give themselves a 20 percent pay increase, for example. We will have a prominent role in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary, which is already gearing up.”
BETTER YET FOR CONSERVATIVES, it’s looking like this Revolt of Principle is threatening to spill over the Pennsylvania border. Young conservatives in other states have been contacting YCOP leaders for advice on how to set up organizations in their states.
“The major thing is regardless of whether it’s a YCOP chapter in your Keystone county, a Young Conservatives-type organization in your state, or some other vehicle, young conservatives need to keep getting involved and pounding the rock,” Lilik said. “We have a potential to change this nation for the better if we all continue to network and grow. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but as Ronald Reagan’s movement proved, anything can be accomplished if you keep at it.”