A Spectre Haunts Specter
Rep. Pat Toomey challenges Pennsylvania's senior Republican senator.
Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By RACHEL DICARLO
PAT TOOMEY has faced some long odds in his career. A conservative Republican, the 41-year-old congressman has run three House campaigns in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a Democratic-leaning, big labor district, and won every time. Last fall, he even ran on Social Security reform--an issue that terrifies most Republicans--in a state with the largest elderly population outside of Florida. Now he's announced plans to run against Pennsylvania's four-term senior senator, Arlen Specter, in what likely will be next year's only competitive primary challenge of an incumbent Republican senator.
Specter starts out with a lot of advantages. As the incumbent he's already locked down the support of the Republican establishment. The White House, Pennsylvania's junior senator Rick Santorum, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and four Pennsylvania GOP House members have lined up behind him. Specter has almost $6 million in campaign funds, compared with Toomey's $663,000 bankroll. Moreover, Specter has a 60 percent approval rating, and high statewide name recognition. In a general election he would be strongly favored over any Democrat.
But Toomey has something Specter can't compete with in a GOP primary: Toomey is a conservative and he votes like one. So in the closed primary, he can appeal to social and fiscal conservatives who have long been leery of Specter's left-leaning record. (In 2001 the American Conservative Union gave Toomey a 100 percent rating; Specter received 56.) "In a Republican primary, the majority will agree with me," Toomey says. "I am a pro-growth conservative and [Specter] is a big government liberal. We have fundamental differences across the board."
Take taxes. In his first House race, Toomey brought blue-collar conservatives to the polls by calling his opponent "the tax man" and attacking him for supporting state tax increases. One of Toomey's campaign pledges was that he would never vote to raise taxes. In 2001 he voted for the original version of the Bush tax cut package.
In what promises to be a major theme of the upcoming campaign, Toomey points out that Specter has wavered on the tax issue. In 2001, Specter voted with the Democrats and four other liberal Republicans to slash the president's tax cut proposal by 20 percent, from $1.6 trillion to $1.25 trillion. With Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Specter also supported a proposal that would make tax cuts contingent on government debt reduction.
A social conservative, Toomey opposes abortion and has cosponsored legislation to ban all human cloning. Specter is pro-choice, and he's flip-flopped on cloning. In July 2001, he said on "Face the Nation," "I certainly would never agree to cloning. I certainly would never agree to destroying a stem cell if there was any chance at all, any chance at all, that the embryo would turn into a human being." But at a press conference last April, he said that he "disagrees with President Bush's statement in opposition to reproductive cloning." And now he's a leading sponsor of legislation that would authorize research cloning.
Toomey says that these issues and Specter's ambivalence on others such as affirmative action and school choice have put Specter "out of step with a big majority of Pennsylvania Republicans." Toomey acknowledges that he's the underdog, but says he has done his "homework" and would not enter the race if he "was not absolutely certain" he "had a great shot at winning."
It's understandable why he might think so. Specter has shown surprising weakness in his last two primaries, when he faced obscure challengers. In 1992, Steve Freind, an underfunded state representative, got 35 percent of the vote. And in 1998, in a three-way race, Specter's two unknown challengers together got 33 percent. "They had no money, no political offices, and no base," Toomey says. "And they still got a third of the vote."
Specter cites those races as reasons for confidence: "I am used to contested primaries, and I am traveling the state, all 67 counties, maintaining a nearly 100 percent voting record and raising money," he said in a press statement. "So I will be ready in 2004."
But Specter doesn't appear completely sure of himself. He's already met with the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation to ask for its endorsement. He's also reached out to the Club for Growth, the anti-tax conservative group with a history of backing primary challengers to liberal Republicans. "He's nervous," Club for Growth president Steve Moore says. "He's a liberal for five years and then in the sixth year he moves aggressively to the right. It's already begun."