PENNSYLVANIA — In the final stretch of the statewide primary battle, incumbent Arlen Specter abandoned any rational argument for his own reelection. Instead, he released a barrage of television ads describing the race as “Pat Toomey vs. George W. Bush.”
Specter spent almost no time on recounting the accomplishments of his 24 years in the Senate, preferring instead to replay Bush’s five-minute “Arlen Specter is the right man for the job” endorsement. At one of his last campaign stops Monday, Specter told a small crowd that it was “very important to focus on what President Bush wants.”
Well…important when it comes to reelecting Arlen Specter. Whether it will remain important to focus on what Bush wants when it comes to Supreme Court nominees, making the tax cuts permanent, human cloning, and a host of other conservative issues remains to be seen.
Specter’s comments yesterday left a lot of doubt as to whether this old dog had learned any new conservative tricks the last few months. He complained loudly that voters from “church parking lots” focused “solely on the abortion issue” had kept his “hands full” throughout the campaign. Beginning today, he will run hard to the left for the general election.
SPECTER’S NARROW WIN (51-49 percent) was by no means a blowout, and came at a great cost. He dropped more than $10 million on the race, about three times as much as Toomey spent. He was a four-time incumbent with strong, vocal support from the Republican establishment. The race should have been in the bag.
Also, moderate Republicans are now on notice that they can and will be targeted by conservative groups, and the way the Toomey revolt captured the imaginations of conservative pundits nationwide will haunt the election year dreams of more than one RINO for some time to come.
Still, the extremely low turnout in Tuesday’s vote suggests that perhaps the national excitement over this race might not have trickled down to the Pennsylvania voters. Only about a third of the state’s 3.1 million Republican voters actually turned out.
Toomey’s diehard supporters remained exuberant at his headquarters Tuesday night right up until after midnight when the AP declared Specter the winner. Only then did it dawn on them that their candidate was even capable of losing.
“I guess I just expected more people to come out,” one volunteer said. “Everywhere we went there were just tons of excited people. I guess the Bush thing just scared them away.”
Toomey has made a pledge to not serve more than three terms in the House, and, lo!, his self-imposed time limit is up, a fact that had his supporters a bit anxious as well.
“I’m not sure what he should do, but I know he should do something,” a young woman festooned with Toomey buttons and stickers said. “He’s the best we’ve got and we can’t lose him.”
DESPITE THE CLOSE LOSS, there was surprisingly little sorrow at Toomey’s headquarters. Volunteers seemed to already be over the loss and gearing up for whatever was to come next. Specter’s headquarters, by all accounts, was nearly empty. But, of course, revelers are not the lifeblood of democracy, voters are. Toomey might have had a better party, but Specter had the better night.
Republicans weren’t the only ones closely watching the race Tuesday night. A Toomey victory would have been a deathblow to the vaguely concealed vice-presidential aspirations of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
The Democratic senatorial candidate, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, is seen to be a sacrificial lamb against Specter. Against Toomey, Hoeffel’s prospects would have brightened considerably, forcing Rendell to become personally involved in the campaign, leaving him less time to campaign on the national ticket.
Monday night in Allentown, a unusually charged Pat Toomey put his spin on President Bush valiant attempt (successful, as we now know) to pull Specter’s chestnuts out of the fire. “Everyone’s entitled to one mistake,” he said.
Specter, already the longest-serving senator in the state’s history, will be 80 by the time his seat comes up again. This will be his last term. It’s anybody’s guess how long his gratitude to President Bush will last. Only then will we know exactly how grave that “one mistake” truly was.
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