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Conservatives Bet on Ousting Specter in 2010

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Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) (WDCpix)

?Five years ago, after Pat Toomey conceded a photo-finish Republican primary to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), his eastern Pennsylvania grassroots organizer Ted Meehan took him aside.

“Specter won with 51 percent of the vote,” said Meehan in a Monday interview. “I told Pat, if he’d had all of Specter’s advantages — had he raised 10 times as much money, and gotten endorsed by [former Sen. Rick] Santorum and President Bush — I don’t think Specter would have gotten even 25 percent of the vote.”

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Image by: Matt Mahurin

Five years later, Meehan was one of the people Toomey called to inform them that he would probably enter the 2010 race for Senate and face off, once again, against Arlen Specter. The former congressman and current president and CEO of the Club for Growth had repeatedly, and recently, denied interest in a rematch. But activists in Pennsylvania and across the broader conservative movement are now urging Toomey to get into a race where, for a number of reasons, he might be the frontrunner.

The looming Toomey candidacy is a product of multiple, interlocking factors that have altered the Republican Party inside and outside of the candidate’s home state. Specter’s brand of liberal, pro-labor, pro-choice Republicanism has become less and less tenable in the Republican Party; indeed, many conservatives blame the party’s Republicans In Name Only (RINOs) for hurting their brand and paving the way for Barack Obama’s victory. This has happened in part because of the fundraising and organizational strength of conservative political groups like Toomey’s own Club for Growth, which has defeated two moderate Republican congressmen in primaries since Toomey took charge in 2005. And in Pennsylvania, more than 100,000 of the moderate, pro-choice Republicans who made up Specter’s victory margin in 2004 have responded to this by switching parties.

“These moderate Republicans are gone,” said Jim Lee, the president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, in a Monday interview. “They’re just gone. That’s made matters very difficult for Arlen Specter.”

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Pat Toomey (House Photo)

Lee’s polling firm, based in Harrisburg, Penn., has been the source of some of the worst news for Specter — some of the news that has Toomey’s supporters brimming with confidence. Its latest survey, conducted from February 23 to 29, found what Lee called “topsy turvy” numbers for Specter. While 38 percent of all voters said they’d vote to re-elect the senator, only 26 percent of Republicans agreed. Most Democrats and most voters in Philadelphia supported Specter, but in traditional Republican strongholds his support had cratered — 35 percent in rural southwest Pennsylvania, and less than 30 percent in central Pennsylvania. Majorities of self-identified liberals and moderates supported Specter. Only 26 percent of conservatives would say the same.

“There’s been a substantial drop-off in support for Specter,” said Glen Beiler, Jr., a Republican committeeman in Lancaster County, on Monday. Beiler recalled the February meeting of state party members, where “nobody talked about Specter,” and where the senator did not attend or send a surrogate. “People are feeling betrayed. Here’s somebody they’d been supporting for years, and he’s turned his back on them.”

The spadework for a second Toomey-Specter race began five years, even if it was not widely noticed at the time. Toomey’s unsuccessful run was, for conservatives, what the 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean was for liberal Democrats. It was the first epic test for the Club for Growth, the 501(c)(4) that had been formed in 1999 and had helped power now-Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and 17 Republican congressional candidates to victory in 2002. In the end, the Club raised $2 million for Toomey — without that, the race would not have been so close.

The 2004 race also galvanized Pennsylvania’s conservatives who, in their telling, had bristled under decades of waning leadership by moderate Republicans like former Gov. Tom Ridge (R-Penn.). One of those conservatives was Chris Lilik, then a 25-year old law school student, to launch Toomey Blog, a churning site with traffic numbers that occasionally surpassed the campaign’s official website . When the campaign ended Lilik launched, with a group of fellow Toomey veterans, the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania. In the 2006 primaries for state legislative offices, YCOP and former Toomey activists played a role in ousting the Republican president and majority leader of Pennsylvania’s state Senate-both men had voted for a pay raise, and both were moderate. Both were beaten by under-funded challengers who got backing from the Pennsylvania Club for Growth-and from Pat Toomey.

“I don’t think that those races would have gone our way if not for Pat Toomey,” said Lilik in a Monday interview. “Toomey revitalized the conservative movement in this state. We built up networks that had never existed.”

Specter has faced almost as much opposition outside of his state — something that Pennsylvania conservatives have watched closely. Multiple state Republicans said that the noncommittal stance of RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who has repeatedly said that he won’t stop state parties from endorsing primary challengers to senators who support Obama’s economic agenda, has made them more confident about an anti-Specter challenge. And they cited two other examples of Specter’s weakness. Two weeks ago, Robert Gleason Jr., the chairman of the state Republican Party, said he backed Specter but that “anything was a possibility” when the state party meets to make an endorsement next year . On repeated occasions, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) has declined to comment on whether he supports Specter’s re-election bid. (Santorum’s office also declined comment to TWI on Wednesday.)

Pennsylvania conservatives are increasingly confident of their chances in a one-on-one race against Specter. The new worry whether the senator might short-circuit a primary by switching parties. Last month, at an event promoting the economic stimulus package, Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Ed Rendell (D) ribbed Specter about his party problems and told him to switch his registration. The joke was obvious, but it hasn’t stopped Republicans from gaming out a Specter party switch scenario or looking for clues that he might join the Democrats. On Monday, Lilik noted matter-of-factly, Specter was making a joint appearance with Rendell. “To get an 81-year-old incumbent with numerous health problems to switch parties,” said Ted Meehan, “you’d need to offer him a real sweetheart deal.”

“He’d definitely have a better time next year by switching parties,” said Jim Lee, “but I don’t think that will happen.” But conservative activists outside Pennsylvania, fed up with Specter’s enabling of Barack Obama, are ready to cut him loose. “I think Specter, [Sen. Olympia] Snowe (R-Maine), and [Sen. Susan] Collins (R-Maine) make it very difficult to rebrand the party for fiscal discipline as well as smaller government,” said Ed Morrissey, the Minnesota-based blogger for HotAir.com.

Jeff Hollingsworth, the executive director of the National Conservative Campaign Fund — a Washington-based group that donated to Toomey in 2004 — doubted that Specter would switch parties, but suggested that “he’d have a much more comfortable ideological home with the Democrats.” If Specter was taken off Republicans’ hands, suggested Hollingworth, Republicans would have one more reason to donate to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, confident that they weren’t supporting a RINO.

Pennsylvania conservatives are aware that the task of ousting Specter has become easier because the party has shed so many registered voters in the eastern part of the state. As of March 2009, that doesn’t bode well for their chances in the general election if they nominate Toomey. But local Republicans suggested that it was impossible to predict what would happen by November 2010, and that this could be a banner year for conservatives. “It is difficult for conservatives to win here,” said Bailey, “and yet Rick Santorum did it twice.”

Toomey, who still lives in Allentown, Penn. and commutes to Washington, was not commenting on the race on Monday. Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Solovcheik would only say that the group had been inundated with calls about a Toomey-Specter rematch.

“You can see it in the polls,” she said. “There’s definitely a lot of buyer’s remorse.”

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