Purity versus electability


Now that the Specter-Toomey feud has officially resumed in Pennsylvania - with Pat Toomey announcing his Senate candidacy yesterday - I can say with total confidence that this Keystone contest, this epic intramural battle for the Republican soul, will be the marquee political event on the national map for the next 13 months. Bill Pascoe, a veteran Republican strategist, had it right yesterday when he observed: "For conservatives, (this) contest is going to be the race of the (2010) cycle. No governor's race, no Senate race, no House race is going to command the attention and generate the interest that this one will."

Just as occurred in 2004, when Arlen the curmudgeonly moderate incumbent eked out a two-point victory over his upstart conservative challenger in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, this rematch will compel Republican voters to weigh the argument of electability against the argument of purity. Indeed, the national GOP in recent years has been inching toward the latter, sometimes at the expense of the former...with help from conservative interest groups such as Club for Growth, helmed by Toomey until early this week.

As the party has increasingly tilted rightward, it has become more inhospitable to Republicans such as Specter. Northeastern Republican moderates are a dying breed, and this primary will be the ultimate test of Specter's survival skills. As we're seeing already, his argument is basically about electability - whereas Toomey, while believing that he is ultimately electable (he's probably deluding himself), is really focused on making the case for ideological purity. That's how he hopes to bond with the conservatives who dominate the Republican primary electorate. (The mass exodus of Arlen-friendly suburban moderates from the party, during the '06 and '08 campaigns, has increased conservative dominance of the GOP registration rolls.)

Actually, at the moment, the best argument for Specter is not being made by Specter. It can be found in a letter authored by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, the guy who runs the GOP's 2010 Senate campaign operation. Cornyn, who's circulating the letter among party regulars nationwide, is the type of conservative who, on paper, would appear to be more in sync with Toomey than Specter. But his letter demionstrates that he lives in the real world. And in the real world, Specter is far more likely than Toomey to win a Senate race in blue-trending Pennsylvania.

Cornyn writes: "As I survey the political landscape of the upcoming 2010 elections, it's clear we need more candidates that fit their states." (That's precisely how the Democrats picked up so many House and Senate seats in 2006 and 2008 - by fielding ideologically diverse candidates that fit their states and districts.)

Cornyn continues: "While I doubt Arlen could win an election in my home state of Texas, I am certain that I could not get elected in Pennsylvania. I believe that Senator Specter is our best bet to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column. A vote for Arlen Specter is a vote for denying Harry Reid and the Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate." (This the crux of Specter's argument, that Toomey would hand the Democrats 60 seats, that Toomey would fare no better against a Democrat than conservative Sen. Rick Santorum fared against Democrat Bob Casey in 2006. Specter keeps talking about how Santorum lost by a whopping 18 points, which apparently is his way of skewering his former colleague, as payback for Santorum's ongoing refusal to endorse Specter in the '10 primary. Ah, politics. Sometimes it's one step removed from the sandbox.)

Anyway, Cornyn continues. This is the key passage, because the stats are self-explanatory: "The political math for Republicans in 2010 is tough. We must defend 19 of our Senate seats - six of which are in states (such as Pennsylvania) won by President Obama. The Democrats have to defend just 17 of their 59 seats, only two of which are in states that Senator McCain won. With just 41 (Republican) members, it's vital that we focus our limited resources on growing the party and beating Democrats."

That last sentence carries a message to state Republicans: If you all choose Toomey over Specter in the GOP primary next May, don't expect us to waste precious money on Pennsylvania, in a futile bid to help Toomey win in November. (By the way, check out the previous sentence, where Cornyn refers to the Democrats' "59 seats." Either that's an unintentional gaffe - the Democrats currently have 58 seats - or it's an admission that Al Franken ultimately will be seated despite the GOP's litigious efforts to block him.)

The rest of Specter's argument, as articulated by Cornyn, is that the incumbent is sufficiently conservative despite his impurities. (Specter has defied the party line roughly 43 percent of the time, a stat that Cornyn omits from the letter.) The letter itemizes Specter's good deeds for the party, including his current vow to oppose Democratic labor reform, his votes to confirm high court justices Roberts and Alito, his vote to keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and his votes for the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. (There's no mention of Specter's support for abortion rights, but that's old news. There's also no mention of Specter's support for the Obama stimulus package, the '09 vote that compelled Toomey to seek a rematch. For single-issue conservative primary voters, stimulus might be the new abortion.)

To survive the primary, Specter has to stress electability, while pandering sufficiently. The latter, of course, requires that he pay his respects to Rush Limbaugh, and this he did last week during a gig on the Howard Stern show. Stern asked Specter for his opinion of the de facto Republican leader, and Specter replied, "Yeah, I like him." When Stern asked how Specter could possibly like a guy who's rooting for the president to fail, Specter pleaded ignorance: "Well, I haven't heard Rush Limbaugh say that." (Limbaugh's remark has been covered for months, and it put him on the cover of Newsweek.)

Specter's other strategy is simply to strangle the Toomey candidacy in its cradle, hopefully by painting Toomey as an avatar of greed who bears some responsibility for the economic meltdown. Tapping his $6-million campaign kitty, Specter has already been on the air with a TV ad claiming that Toomey, a former Wall Street dealmaker, "sold risky derivatives...the same swaps that have now plunged us into this financial mess." Maybe, by playing the populist card, Specter can win over conservative voters who are as ticked off at Wall Street as everybody else. The problem, however, was that this ad was a crock. Toomey left Wall Street in 1991; the derivatives cited by Specter weren't even sold on Wall Street until around 1997. Specter had to change his ad.

What's most striking, however, is that Specter felt it necessary to launch this TV attack on Toomey...before Toomey had even announced his candidacy. That kind of assertiveness has to be some kind of record for a primary contest. Above all, it's a signal that Specter is seriously concerned about his prospects in 2010. And the Washington Republicans who fear that Pennsylvania might ultimately award Democrats their 60th Senate seat have reason to worry as well.