GOP Race Could Aid Hoeffel

Posted March 24, 2004 at 6:25pm

Rep. Pat Toomey’s (R) rise in recent polling in the Pennsylvania Senate race has emboldened state and national Democrats, whose hopes of winning the seat in November largely hinge on the three-term Congressman’s ability to take down Sen. Arlen Specter in next month’s GOP primary.

While party strategists argue that the Senate race will be competitive regardless because of the state’s status as a presidential battleground, they are also increasingly excited by the growing potential that the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, could face Toomey instead of the four-term entrenched incumbent in November.

“I’m sure that there are Hoeffel supporters all over the state saying their prayers every night asking for a Pat Toomey victory,” said one Democratic strategist in the state.

The strategist said Toomey’s performance in the race so far has Democrats “ecstatic.”

“I think you’re going to see Democrats out there pumping up Toomey’s campaign because the race against Toomey is easier,” the strategist said.

But at the same time, the party is being forced to fend off ramped-up efforts to recruit Democratic Party switchers in the final push before next week’s primary registration deadline.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that an international labor union is aiding Specter’s effort to convince Democratic voters to register as Republicans before the April 27 primary.

In a recent letter to Pennsylvania members, Transportation Communications International Union President Robert Scardelletti wrote that Specter “needs as much support” in the primary as possible. Specter has enjoyed the backing of labor in the past.

“Enclosed is a voter registration card that you can use to register to vote in the Republican primary if you so choose,” Scardelletti wrote in the letter. “I realize that this is a somewhat unusual request, but I can assure you that it is vitally important.”

The letter was accompanied by instructions from the Specter campaign on how to register to vote. The deadline for voters to register in the closed primary is Monday. Regardless of party affiliation, voters are then able to support any candidate in the general election.

The union’s registration campaign is a twist on the 2002 gubernatorial race, when now-Gov. Ed Rendell’s (D) primary win was aided heavily by Republican-turned-Democratic voters. It is estimated that Rendell’s campaign recruited as many as 40,000 “Rendell Republicans” to switch parties.

While the effort to re-register some of those voters as Republicans to aid Specter is not expected to be as successful as Rendell’s was two years ago, Democrats say they are putting similar muscle behind efforts to increase the party’s registration advantage. Party leaders estimate that as many as 100,000 new voters have been added in the state over the past several months.

“For every new Republican voter Arlen Specter registers, Democrats will register many new voters,” said Hoeffel spokesman Tom Hickey. “The fact is people are angry about the direction George Bush and Arlen Specter have led this country in. It’s been harmful and destructive and people are ready for a change.”

Hickey charged that Specter is playing a geographical shell game and predicted in the end that the registration effort would fall far short of being effective. Specter, Rendell and Hoeffel all share the same Philadelphia base.

“Any effort to re-register voters in the east is at best disingenuous,” said Hickey. “In the southeast Specter tells people he’s a moderate. In the western part of the state he’s got [Sen.] Rick Santorum [R-Pa.] telling people he’s a conservative. He’s playing both sides of the state against each other.”

Toomey’s campaign, meanwhile, argues that the last-minute effort to woo party switchers is a sign of desperation in the wake of recent polling that has shown Specter’s vulnerability increasing.

“The fact that this appeal comes just days before the registration deadline illustrates that Arlen Specter is aware that he doesn’t have sufficient support among Republicans to win this race,” Toomey spokesman Joe Sterns told the AP.

A poll conducted for the Club for Growth and released last week showed Toomey narrowing the gap in the primary, with Specter leading Toomey 47 percent to 37 percent. A poll in January showed Specter leading by 23 points.

A subsequent Quinnipiac University poll offered further evidence of Specter’s slippage, with his re-election percentage dipping to 36 percent in the latest survey. Specter lead Toomey 45 percent to 29 percent in the same poll.

The Club for Growth went on the air this week with its second television ad of the cycle, criticizing Specter for supporting “eight huge tax hikes” and voting for “higher income taxes, higher gas taxes, higher Social Security taxes.”

The organization has been instrumental in helping to steer money to Toomey’s campaign, which had $2 million in the bank at the beginning of the year.

From the campaign’s inception, Toomey has worked to paint Specter as a liberal who often works against his own party. Specter, using the slogan “Courage, Clout, Conviction,” has highlighted his accomplishments as a senior appropriator. He has also reached out to Toomey’s base among ideological conservatives by running radio ads on Christian stations.

Toomey has been endorsed by several prominent conservatives, including Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

Specter, who had $9.2 million in his coffers at the beginning of the year, has the backing of the White House as well as the Senate leadership and Santorum, a leading conservative.

Hoeffel, meanwhile, began the year with $800,000 in the bank.

Privately, Democrats acknowledge that Hoeffel’s ability to raise money has been hampered by Specter’s presence in the race.

If Toomey wins the nomination, they say, it will open the flood gates for money from interest groups that have traditionally supported Specter, such as organized labor.

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that the DSCC has reached out to labor aggressively on Hoeffel’s behalf and will continue to do so.

“Our message to them has been, ‘Do you want a 40 percent Republican or a 100 percent Democrat representing you in the U.S. Senate?’” Woodhouse said. “The answer should be an easy one.”

He added: “Arlen Specter doesn’t deserve the support of labor. We’re going to send that message.”

Aside from the geographical and monetary advantages Hoeffel would gain from facing Toomey instead of Specter, he would also gain ideological ground.

“Hoeffel can have the middle all to himself if Specter is out of the picture,” the strategist said.

Hickey said the issues would remain the same, regardless of who Hoeffel faces in November.

“Zero percent of the voters in this state think that the economy is in good shape,” he said.

Meanwhile, this week there was some resolution to a prolonged debate over the location and number of debates between the two GOP candidates. Specter and Toomey will meet for a debate in Altoona on April 3.

Toomey initially proposed a series of six debates, while Specter has agreed to participate in only one, in Altoona. In agreeing to the debate in Altoona, Toomey reissued his compromise plan for three debates to be held across the state.