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Handicapping Pennsylvania: Does Toomey Have a Chance to Win?

The Guest Observer in this newspaper’s May 18 edition, written by Brian Wild, who worked as chief of staff to then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), makes some interesting claims about Toomey’s prospects in the 2010 Pennsylvania Senate race.

Wild begins by asserting that unidentified “Washington ... ‘experts’” want to deny that Toomey’s “dominance in polls is what led Specter to jump ship.”

This is a curious comment because every thoughtful discussion that I’ve heard about Specter’s party switch notes that he left the GOP because he was trailing badly in the polls and couldn’t beat Toomey in a primary. Specter even said so. There is no debate about that.

Wild also asserts that one of the reasons why Toomey can win a general election is “because he has won three elections in a Democratic-leaning Congressional district.” I’ve heard the district characterized this way before, and it is simply wrong.

Pennsylvania’s 15th district, which Toomey represented for three terms (starting in 1998), is and has been a competitive district since Don Ritter (R) won it in 1978. GOP Congressional nominees have won 12 of the past 15 House races in the district, which has remained a Northampton County-Lehigh County district with only minor changes since the early 1980s.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried the district by a single point in 2004, at the same time that Rep. Charlie Dent (R) was winning an open House seat, and Democrat Al Gore won it narrowly — 49 percent to 47 percent — in 2000, even while Toomey was being re-elected.

The 15th was and is a tossup district. The Dec. 12, 1997, issue of the Rothenberg Political Report concluded with the observation that “Republicans would be no worse than even money with either [state Sen. Joe] Uliana or Toomey as their nominee” in the open seat, and in the January 1996 and May 1998 issues, the Cook Political Report rated the House races in this district as tossups both when Rep. Paul McHale (D) was running for re-election in 1996 and when the seat was open in 1998.

Interestingly, Wild conveniently omits the fact that Toomey outspent his opponent in 1998, former state Sen. Roy Afflerbach (D), by 2-to-1, $1 million to $562,000 — certainly a factor in Toomey’s surprisingly easy 10-point victory that year.

Wild’s strangest point may well be his suggestion that Sen. Rick Santorum (R) lost re-election in 2006 because his base abandoned him. “And why did the base abandon the conservative Santorum?” Wild asks. “Because Santorum endorsed Specter in the 2006 elections.” (Note to Wild: Santorum endorsed Specter’s 2004 re-election bid.)

This is the most bizarre explanation of Santorum’s defeat that I have ever heard.

There are many contributing factors for Santorum’s defeat — George W. Bush’s unpopularity, the war in Iraq, the fundamental strength of challenger then-state Treasurer Bob Casey (D), and the perception that Santorum was intolerant and too conservative — but the idea that Santorum, who drew just 41 percent of the vote, lost because his base abandoned him is delusional.

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