The Conservative Choice?

Pennsylvania’s Republican primary is a struggle for the center of gravity — if not the soul — of the GOP.



“We see this time as the climax of the civil war of values that’s been raging for 35 years. This is the Gettysburg. This is the D-Day, the Stalingrad. We must oppose those who have done so much to create the mess that we’re in.”
(James C. Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, a conservative group.)

The war in Iraq? Bush v. Kerry? The 9/11 hearings? No, no and no. Dobson is talking about the Republican Senate primary battle in Pennsylvania between Arlen Specter, the moderate incumbent, and Rep. Pat Toomey, his (very) conservative challenger.

Pennsylvania Republicans will vote in a closed primary today that, should Specter lose, “could change the political face of the slim Republican majority in the Senate,” says the AP. National conservatives view Specter as an obstacle to their agenda in Washington and say, with only a little exaggeration, that nothing less than the soul of the Republican Party is at stake.

The race is a close one: on Monday, Specter retained a dwindling lead, with 48 percent of likely voters’ support compared to Toomey’s 42 percent, with 10 percent still undecided. Just three weeks ago Specter led Toomey 52 percent to 37 percent, but now the race is so close pollsters say the result today will hinge on which candidate draws the biggest turnout.

The New York Times calls Specter, a four-term senator, “a member of an endangered species of Capitol Hill centrists.” He has a legislative record a moderate Democrat could live with, having voted against tax cuts, school vouchers, the Clinton impeachment, and the nomination of the conservative judge Robert Bork in 1987 — a watershed for social conservatives. To compound his offenses in conservative eyes, Specter opposes a federal constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage and has voted in support of abortion rights. There exists a gaping ideological gap between Specter and an increasingly conservative Republican base, leaving many conservatives to wonder just what sort of Republican he thinks he is. Add to this that Specter, if he keeps his seat, is expected to become chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year and you begin to see why many conservatives want him gone.

Conservatives want not only to get rid of Specter but make him an example to other moderates — like Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) — that they’ll be held accountable for their maverick ways.

Some conservatives, admittedly, are in no hurry. Grover Norquist, in an unusually relaxed moment for a man who wants to drown the federal government in a bathtub, asked recently, “What do these so-called moderates have in common? They’re seventy years old. They’re not running again. They’re gonna be dead soon. So, while they’re annoying, within the Republican Party our problems are dying.”

But most conservatives have less patience. Enter Rep. Pat Toomey.

Toomey gained the support of conservatives like Dobson and the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which has bankrolled his campaign, with his hard line pro-life, anti-taxation, anti-spending, small government and big defense voting record in the house. Toomey, a former international banker and 6-year member of the house, says the conservatives’ moment is here:

We’ve got a Republican majority in the House, we’ve got a Republican in the White House, and we’ve got a Republican majority in the Senate. But, unfortunately, in the Senate it’s really a nominal majority. It’s not a functioning majority, and it’s certainly not a conservative majority. And the reason is that a handful of liberal Republicans who never bought into the Republican conservative ideas in the first place are continuing to side with the Democrats and prevent us from accomplishing so many wonderful things we could be doing.

Paradoxically, given Toomey and Specter’s voting records and divergent visions for the GOP, George W. Bush has endorsed the incumbent Specter and has been out stumping for him in Pennsylvania. It is most telling perhaps that the President’s trip there last week, when he helped raise $400,000 for Specter, was Bush’s 27th visit to Pennsylvania as president.

Why? Because Pennsylvania is a key swing state. (It fell to Gore in 2000 by less than 5 percent.) Bush’s political calculus tells him — or, more likely, tells Karl Rove — that Specter is the safe bet to help Bush carry the Keystone State. Bush’s reelection machine realizes that general election voters in November will be on average more moderate than voters in this closed primary and that Specter will have a better chance of defeating the Democratic nominee Joe Hoeffel than will Toomey, even if Toomey is the more natural Bush ally. Specter can expect to pick up some moderate Democratic votes in the general election, and to raise money from traditionally Democratic sources, like unions.

As Philip Gourevitch points out in a recent New Yorker piece, “While Toomey invokes the century-old dream of conservative political dominion, perhaps it is Specter, the known quantity, posing in campaign literature arm in arm with Dick Cheney, who is, in the literal sense of the word, the conservative choice.”

The contradictions inherent Bush’s support for Specter are clear enough, though. Despite a recent rightward lurch to fend off Toomey, Specter has still been speaking out recently against a renewal of the Patriot Act, a key element in Bush’s reelection strategy, saying that there has to be more balance between the act and civil rights. (He’s been especially exercised about a section that would give the F.B.I. greater power to demand records from businesses and institutions like libraries.) Speaking in Hershey, PA, a day after raising a bundle of cash for Specter, Bush stood before a giant photo collage of first responders with the headline “Protecting the Homeland” to tell a group of supporters that “Many of the Patriot Act’s anti-terror tools are set to expire next year. The problem is, the war on terror continues, and yet some senators and congressmen not only want provisions to expire, but they want to roll back some of the features.”

Specter is one of those senators, of course; but when it comes to reelection politicking, such minor quibbles seem trivial. When he was in Pittsburgh last week Bush explained, “I’m here to say it as plainly as I can: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. [Specter is] little bit independent-minded sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with that. [He is] a firm ally when it matters most.” Right — like when both of their jobs are on the line.

Paul Weyrich, the founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, once said that “Arlen Specter is an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” Much to Specter’s chagrin, most hard-line conservatives seem to have concluded now that he is just a plain old S.O.B., but moderates can take heart from the fact that Bush’s truly hard-nosed political calculations still allow a moderate of some minor conviction to remain in the running