PENNSYLVANIA — If Rep. Pat Toomey is successful in his bid to unseat Sen. Arlen Specter today in the statewide Republican primary, it will vindicate a true populist revolt. And like most populist revolts, it is a complete mess.
It is shocking, really, just how disorganized the Toomey campaign is. Phone calls are never returned, the website isn’t updated, promises are routinely broken, none of the staff seems to have the authority to answer simple questions about scheduling, there is a dearth of events outside of boring, rote press conferences, and it costs a pound of flesh to get a copy of the candidate’s itinerary for even those events.
Toomey himself is hardly an electrifying campaigner. His recent prediction that he will win the race with 51.4 percent of the vote somehow managed to come off as both coldly calculating and silly.
In order to properly illustrate the disarray, here is the anatomy of a recent Toomey event. The official Toomey website listed it as “open to the public,” but I decided to be polite and clear my presence with the staff. After a week of unreturned phone calls, Toomey’s press secretary finally calls and tells me everything is kosher, come on up.
So I pile into the rental car, drive four hours to the event, and am…promptly kicked out of the conference hall. Outside, I’m accused of being a member of the Specter campaign. After I go to my car and get a business card to prove I am not with Specter, I’m told the rally is open to the public, but not the media. Instead I am invited to attend a hastily arranged press conference right after.
This move by Team Toomey does not make any sense for a couple reasons. First, the media is the public. Second, it is difficult to fathom why the campaign would want to show the media a wholly uninteresting press conference while shielding reporters and cameras from observing and interacting with an energetic, pro-Toomey crowd.
While I explain these two points to one of the few useful Toomey staffers (there are one or two), another shaggy-haired staffer comes over and tells us to “shut the f–k up!” while the Congressman is doing interviews. As a concession to an irate press corps, the Toomey folks agreed to allow print reporters in, but not television reporters. Frustrated camera crews who could have helped get Toomey’s message out (free advertising!) are instead insulted and turned away.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM TELLS US that strong finances and a good organization are the necessary ingredients for success. It goes without saying that unseating a sitting senator in a primary is no easy feat, but is even more difficult when a popular president comes out strongly for the incumbent, as President Bush has for Specter.
However, in spite of a huge disadvantage in campaign funds and his chaotic campaign organization, Toomey is giving the Senator quite the fight. Specter currently enjoys a reed-thin lead but undecideds are leaning toward his conservative challenger. An upset may not be probable, but it is now possible, a fact to which the strong national media presence attests.
So why is this one down to the wire? Well, obviously there is an element of protest against the orgiastic federal spending of the last few years. Arlen Specter, with his terrible voting record, is a convenient target to focus the ire of traditional Republicans.
A lot of campaign cash from outside Pennsylvania has flowed into this race, especially as conservatives have increasingly come to see it as a bellwether of their influence within the party. They want to send a warning to centrists who want to make the tent a little too big. And Pennsylvania may be the right place to send that warning. I’ve never met so many hardcore conservatives in one place before — and I’m from New Hampshire.
But the truth is, this really is a populist movement. Cash and clout are being diminished by principles and ideals — a feat Campaign Finance advocates had told us was impossible. If Toomey wins, this race could conceivably inspire many other such uprisings.
THIS PAST WEEKEND, CLUSTERS OF TRUE believers, with bright yellow Toomey signs, posted themselves at the corner of what seemed like every intersection in central Pennsylvania. These self-organized volunteers out pounding the pavement for Toomey are shockingly passionate — and considerably more effective and polite than his paid staff.
Many volunteers never worked on a campaign before, and, as such, are not surprised by the national media’s attention to the race. To hear them tell it, this is the most important race since…well, since ever.
“If the election was going to be decided on bumper stickers and signs, it’d be Toomey in a landslide,” one 22-year-old college student told me. “I can’t imagine Toomey losing. We’ve got the candidate, we’ve got the truth, and we’ve got the energy to take ’em both to the polls.”
“Let me tell you how Toomey’s gonna win,” a bearded man volunteered. “It’s like NASCAR. You ever watch NASCAR?”
“No,” I said. “Do you mean the race is going to be close and it’ll come down to the checkered flag wave?”
“There’s more strategy to it than that,” he said. “It’s not just about who goes fastest. It’s about who plans ahead and…Actually, there’s no need to get into it. Let’s just say Toomey’s going to take it home.”
There is some naiveté here, of course. This sort of “there’s no way we can lose” view is nearly universally held among Toomey’s core supporters. They might not be the first young idealists to mistake button and bumper stickers for votes. Remember, Howard Dean stumbled out of Iowa with more “Dean for America” knit caps than votes.
Let’s just say that Toomey’s supporters have kept the faith despite the odds. Tonight we’ll see if it was blind or not.