Pa. Challenger Goes It Alone

Posted February 26, 2003 at 6:35pm

As Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) prepares to formally announce Friday that he will challenge fellow Republican Sen. Arlen Specter next year, his House colleagues are hardly leaping to embrace his bid.

Toomey, who is honoring a pledge to step down from the House after three terms, will kick off a two-day tour of Pennsylvania in Allentown on Friday morning.

Four of the 12 Republicans in the Keystone State’s House delegation said they are supporting Specter’s bid for a fifth term. Several other Members indicated Wednesday that they had not yet decided whether to endorse in the primary, and two of the state’s Republicans said they will remain neutral for the duration of the contest.

Pennsylvania GOP Reps. Jim Greenwood, Phil English, Bill Shuster and Todd Platts are all publicly backing Specter’s re-election.

“I certainly respect Pat’s decision to seek the Senate seat and wish him well, with the caveat that I’ll be supporting Senator Spector for re-election,” Platts said in an interview.

He said he’d informed both Toomey and Specter of his decision three weeks ago, as Toomey weighed a Senate run.

Platts and other Members supporting Specter noted the Senator’s seniority in the chamber and position as the third ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee as assets for the state.

“I have great respect for Pat Toomey’s abilities and his service to his district,” Shuster said through a spokesman. “Arlen Specter, however, has always been a force for Pennsylvania, one that we cannot afford to lose.”

Shuster continued: “I will support the Senator in his upcoming election and help him to continue to serve the Commonwealth. Arlen Specter is the best candidate for Pennsylvania and the best candidate to preserve our much-needed majority in the Senate.”

Bob Holste, chief of staff for English, described the Congressman’s decision to back Specter as a “no-brainer.”

“It’s awfully clear where the White House is on this,” Holste said, adding that Specter has demonstrated he is “well within the mainstream” of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

“Normally you don’t punish incumbents for being in the mainstream of the Republican Party,” he added.

As Toomey weighed the primary challenge, the Bush administration sent clear signals to the third-term lawmaker that it would back the moderate incumbent in a primary.

The message was even clearer when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card attended a fundraiser Monday in Bethlehem, Pa., located in the heart of Toomey’s swing Lehigh Valley district.

At the fundraiser, where the Senator raised $100,000, Card called Specter “a valuable ally in the Senate.”

Other key Republicans had sought in vain to dissuade Toomey from running, including Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is more closely aligned with Toomey than Specter on the political spectrum. Santorum helped recruit Toomey to run for Congress in 1998.

“I agree with Rick Santorum, his colleague, we don’t need a primary in Pennsylvania,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said Tuesday, as news of Toomey’s decision to run spread.

Allen’s indication that the committee will stand firmly behind the incumbent, would appear to veer from what unfolded in last year’s New Hampshire primary, when the committee publicly endorsed but did little to help then-Sen. Bob Smith (R) in his battle against then-Rep. and now-Sen. John Sununu (R).

Many Republicans acknowledged in that instance that Smith, who left the party briefly in 1999, was a weak general-election candidate and suffered residual popularity problems from his party switch.

Specter does not face the same electoral jeopardy following the primary, as a top-tier Democratic challenger has yet to emerge.

One top aide to a Pennsylvania Republican said the visit to Toomey’s district, where event planners enlisted the support of Republicans who have formerly backed the Congressman, is a telling sign of Specter’s overall popularity.

“What it shows is that Arlen is popular all over the state, even in Toomey’s backyard,” said the aide. “Pat’s going to have to fight even to deliver his own county.”

As far as Toomey’s chances in a primary, the aide added, “I think he’s going to get crushed like a bug.”

In a brief interview Wednesday, Specter brushed aside the looming primary challenge. The Senator reported having $5.9 million in the bank at the end of last year, while Toomey showed $663,000.

“I am used to contested primaries and I am traveling the state, all 67 counties, maintaining nearly a 100 percent voting record and raising money,” Specter said. “So I will be ready in ’04.”

Specter faced two opponents in a 1998 primary, but won easily with 67 percent of the vote. He garnered 61 percent in the general. In 1992, he was challenged by an anti-abortion state legislator and won the primary 65 percent to 35 percent.

Still, some Republicans believe Toomey, who has the backing of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, is the first viable primary challenger that Specter has faced. They are watching who does — and does not — offer primary endorsements.

While those supporting Specter’s re-election have been most vocal to this point, some other Members of the state delegation appear to be taking a more hands-off approach to the intraparty race, indicating that they may not endorse in the race.

“Congressman [John] Peterson [R-Pa.] has not yet endorsed either candidate at this point,” said spokesman Paul Feenstra.

Spokesmen for both freshmen Reps. Jim Gerlach (R) and Tim Murphy (R) said their bosses were too busy still getting their feet wet in Congress and hadn’t given much thought to the primary.

At least two other Pennsylvania Republicans made it clear that they do not plan endorsements at any time.

“The Congresswoman does not plan on endorsing either candidate in the primary,” said Brendan Benner, a spokesman for Rep. Melissa Hart (R).

An aide to Rep. Joe Pitts was more blunt.

“It’s up to the voters to decide,” said Pitts Chief of Staff Gabe Neville.

A spokesman for Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said the office had “no comment” on the primary race, and a spokesman for Rep. Don Sherwood (R) did not return calls seeking comment.

While there are no Members publicly backing Toomey, there is still visible evidence of the frustration that is apparently fueling his candidacy.

Specter, a former prosecutor, gained notoriety in conservative circles during the Reagan administration when he opposed several of the president’s judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. He has also angered social conservatives within the party with his support of abortion rights, although he appeased some when he changed his position regarding so-called “partial-birth” abortion.

“Arlen Specter is one of the most liberal Republicans in the country,” said one Pennsylvania Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There is frustration within the Republican Party, going back to the Bork nomination, that has not been forgotten in large sections of Pennsylvania.”