It’s a familiar story that makes Pennsylvania conservative activists turn red when they tell it. Every six years, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) runs for re-election and he must quiet a Republican base angry with some of his moderate votes. Every six years, Specter briefly veers to the right to placate them. Every six years, he wins — and promptly goes back to being the Arlen Specter who stubbornly votes against their interests.
“This has happened before,” said Michael Geer, the president of the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute. “The closer to the election we get, the greater his tendency to tack in more conservative direction.”
As conservatives prepare to take down Specter in the 2010 Republican primary, some high-level activists are trying to aid the senator by giving him cover on two issues that, they hope, will mollify the base. This week, Specter has introduced — for the second time — legislation that would replace the current tax code with a flat-rate income tax. Behind the scenes, Specter is being lobbied to support a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of parents to homeschool their children. The goal is to prove to conservatives that Specter, if re-elected, will be on their side. Pennsylvania’s conservatives, with Specter in their sights, are not yet buying it.
“This is pure political posturing,” said Peg Luksik, the conservative activist who is, at the moment, the only declared Republican candidate against Specter. “This is a sop to conservatives because he’s afraid of losing his seat.”
The flat tax bill, which Specter first introduced in 2007 and is not expected to pass in this Senate, either, has not taken Specter’s opponents by surprise. But the Parental Rights Amendment and the launch of its grassroots lobbying arm at ParentalRights.org is something new. The amendment, sponsored in the House by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), is a response to legal developments that have rattled the homeschool movement, if little noticed outside of it. The most recent precedent on homeschooling, the 2000 Supreme Court decision Troxel v. Granville, defended the right of parents to visit their child but did not find a fundamental right of a parent over a child’s education. Homeschool activists read, in the decision, a need to enumerate parents’ rights. The amendment would rewrite the Constitution to make a “fundamental right” out of “the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children.”
Outside of Congress, the amendment is backed by a small coalition of conservatives who have appealed to Specter to support it. The purpose is not only to move the bill forward by putting a more moderate spokesman than DeMint forward, but to build support for Specter with homeschoolers. Specter’s office, contacted for this story, did not say whether or not he would support the bill.
“One of the challenges that the traditional values people have is that they’re seen as trying to impose their values on other people,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an early supporter of ParentalRights.org.
The amendment, Norquist said, is a politically popular way for homeschool activists to get something they want, while exposing the government-knows-best agenda that opponents of homeschooling are usually able to conceal. It might also be a way of bucking up Specter, whose chief of staff, Scott Hoeflich, gave Norquist a head’s up when Specter decided to vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would have made it easier for workers to unionize. “Why would I want to go after Arlen Specter,” Norquist asked, “when he just saved us on the single most important vote in this Congress?”
The heaviest hitter trying to get Specter on board with the Parental Rights Amendment might be Mike Farris, the group’s president, and the founder and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, a conservative university in Virginia. Farris has spoken to Specter’s office about the amendment, though it wasn’t clear this week whether Specter was warm to the idea. “If Sen. Specter joined our efforts it would be an enormous help,” said Farris on Wednesday. “We would love his help.”
Specter’s conservative critics — a group that includes as much as 70 percent of the Pennsylvania Republican electorate — are wary of the senator’s efforts to court them in the run-up to next year’s election. “Generally speaking,” said Mike Geer. “Sen. Specter has not been very good on school choice issues.” But Geer wasn’t entirely dismissive of Specter. “We hope that every day is a new day.”
Conservatives who oppose Specter are cool to the possible impact of a Parental Rights Amendment endorsement not just because of his pattern of moving right in election years, but because they don’t think the amendment has much of a chance in the 111th Congress. “We’re having an awful time of getting Democrats on board,” Hoekstra said on Wednesday. “I’m getting told, ‘Pete, I don’t do constitutional amendments. Pete, I support the idea but I don’t want to get out in front on it. I think that the Democratic leadership is putting a lot of pressure on the party not to do anything.” Hoekstra had not talked to Specter about the amendment, but added that it would “be awesome if he got on board.”
Allies of both of Specter’s likely primary challengers, Luksik and Club for Growth President Pat Toomey, dismissed any effect the act could have on Specter’s re-election hopes. “If Arlen were to sponsor a parental rights bill,” said Ted Meehan, a Toomey ally who will work for the eventual Senate campaign, “would it discourage [Vice President Joseph] Biden and [Gov. Ed] Rendell (D-Pa.) to discourage him from becoming a Democrat? No. They love the guy, and this isn’t going anywhere.”