Taking Down Arlen Specter

I am so far into northwestern Pennsylvania that if I sneeze, the "bless you's" are going to come across Lake Erie from Cleveland.

I’m in the basement Assembly Hall of the Meadville Medical Center watching Republican Senator Arlen Specter explain, or defend, his peculiar brand of politics. It is an odd mix of ambivalence, defiance, expedience, and pragmatism. He is what in polite company is described as a moderate. And that is, in large part, why he is in trouble.

Specter, who has spent 24 years in the Senate, is targeted for extinction -- not by some vast Democratic machine, but by a segment of the GOP that believes he has not been sufficiently adherent to the Party’s orthodoxy on taxes, spending, guns, and abortion.

He's now in a nasty primary fight, the toughest he has ever had, against right-wing Rep. Pat Toomey, who says the 74-year-old incumbent is among those "who never bought into the idea of the Republican Party."

How nasty is it?

Toomey says Specter is a liberal: "Being a liberal doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does make you a liberal."

Ouch!

The Pennsylvania primary, scheduled for April 27, is only the most prominent example of an intense ideological tug-of-war within the GOP that could help Democrats this fall. In some important ways, the GOP today looks a lot like the Democrats of the early 90s: in control, riven by different agendas, and facing an out-of-power party driven by a fury against the incumbent president.

Suddenly we live in an age when it is the Republicans who are having divisive (some say destructive) primary battles as unchallenged Democrats await the battered winner; when the Republican leadership on the Hill can’t hold its members in line; when across the party , Republicans are asking, "what does the party stand for -- and has it lost its way?"

Part of the answer is that parties in power, particularly at the congressional level, tend to look an awful lot alike. Their core shifts toward whatever keeps them in power. Bill Clinton dismantled welfare; the tax-cutting, government shrinking GOP has now produced the largest deficits in the history of the republic.

The latest torment for the GOP House leadership comes in the form of a group calling itself the Dirty Dozen. The 12 Republican members are threatening to join with the Democrats on votes to stop spending that add to the deficit. Their plan is to vote with the Democrats on rules that allow greater debate on the proposed spending measures. The result could be a loss of the tight control with which the Republicans have run the House. It is a dozen they can ill-afford to lose.

And in the Senate, where the GOP leadership margin is two votes, they can’t even afford the loss of a pro-choice, big spender like Specter, whose muted zeal for the President’s tax cuts has made him suspect in the eyes of conservatives.

The Specter race has reopened the Big Tent debate for the GOP. Specter’s true nemesis in this primary race is not so much a 42-year-old, three-term congressman from Allentown who went to Harvard and worked on Wall Street. It is the Club For Growth, the group of conservative, anti-tax, anti-spending crusaders whose raison d’etre is to eliminate moderate Republicans. The club has spent nearly $1 million on television ads attacking Specter as a liberal, and raised almost another million in hard money for Toomey.

"He has one of the worst records of any Republican on fiscal restraint," says David Keating, executive director of the Club For Growth. "There is no big tent when it comes to the issue of taxes and spending." Keating says that it is not Specter’s pro-choice position or the fact that he voted against Robert Bork that makes him a RINO, a pejorative that stands for Republican in Name Only.

"I don’t think the average Republican voter likes an Arlen Specter," says Keating.

Indeed, Citizens for Government Waste named Specter its Porker of the Year for 2003

Keating says that while the party establishment does not care what kind of Republican it supports, voters do.

"The Party establishment gives money to incumbents; it really does not matter who they are, what they do, what their record in office is. If they are a Republican, they are supported by the establishment," says Keating. "So we see the Club for Growth as a way of balancing off, of providing more competition potentially in primary elections."

All of this has Sarah Chamberlain Resnick a little bit hot and bothered.

"This money would be better fighting the Democrats," she says. "That we are wasting all this money fighting each other is not helpful at all, especially in a swing state like Pennsylvania."

Resnick is the executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group dedicated to stopping the Club For Growth. She worries that if the Club For Growth gets Specter, they will be encouraged in their ideological ethnic cleansing. And more practically, she’s worried that the primary fight could cost them the seat. Polls show that if Toomey is the nominee, Democratic Congressman Joe Hoeffel would be the likely winner.

And the concern is not just in Pennsylvania. In Florida, for example, conservative former Rep. Bill McCollum is up against former Bush Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, who is being cast as the moderate in the race. While there is a three-way Democratic primary, former Education Secretary Betty Castor seems the presumptive favorite in both the primary and the general election.

According to the Boston Globe, Democrats have now taken the lead in seven of the closest Senate races. If those leads hold up, Democrats will gain three seats -- Oklahoma, Colorado, and Alaska -- giving them control of the Senate.

For that to happen, of course, a lot of things have to go perfectly right for the Democrats or perfectly wrong for the Republicans. It's a single-bullet theory that Arlen Specter might appreciate.

Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Terence Samuel, "Specter Sport", The American Prospect Online, Apr 15, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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