Conservative Toomey considering rematch against Specter

A possible 2010 primary battle between the GOP's top moderate and a chieftain of its radical tribe could presage the 2012 presidential primaries.

Published March 2, 2009 9:00PM (EST)

There’s a wing of the Republican Party -- let’s call it the Limbaugh wing -- convinced that the GOP’s problem has been too much compromise. And these guys, they're out for blood.

Lucky for the hard-liners, there’s a race coming up that’s tailor-made for a bloody, intra-party ideological showdown. Pat Toomey, a conservative former congressman from Pennsylvania, has announced that the idea of his mounting a primary challenge against Sen. Arlen Specter is “back on the table.” Specter, the veteran senator who was one of the three key Republican supporters of the stimulus, is a perennial object of loathing for his party’s right wing. In 2004, he beat back a challenge from Toomey with 51 percent of the vote to the challenger's 49 percent. The incumbent probably wouldn’t have squeaked through without major assistance from President George W. Bush and then-Sen. Rick Santorum, both beloved figures among Republicans at the time.

Specter won his general election handily (full disclosure: I worked for his Democratic challenger, Rep. Joe Hoeffel), and maintained his special place in the craw of the party’s arch-conservatives. Toomey, meanwhile, went on to run the Club for Growth, the financial arsenal for insurgent righty candidates. This is, in other words, a rematch made in heaven.

Until recently, Toomey had been planning a gubernatorial run. It may be that he still is, and is just firing a shot across Specter’s bow. The senator’s poll numbers have been weak lately, and he’s facing cross-cutting pressures on key issues. As a Republican from an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, Specter probably has more to fear in a general election than he has in years past. So if it weren't for Toomey, it would be awfully tempting for a union-friendly moderate Republican like Specter to hug the center even tighter by supporting things like the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act or President Obama’s budget. But if the threat from Toomey is real, then Specter may have more to worry about on his right flank. The irony of representing an increasingly Democratic state is that Specter’s core constituency -- moderates from the Philadelphia suburbs -- has largely bailed on the Republican Party, leaving it full of Toomey types. That means that the leftward trajectory of the state overall actually makes it harder for a moderate Republican like Specter, who might be able to win a general election, to win his party’s nomination. Plus, a primary battle would drain his resources and make him an easier target for Democrats.

Specter’s situation parallels that of the national party pretty neatly, as Alex explained a month ago. As in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman, the party’s internal tensions will be laid bare by a Specter-Toomey rematch. So for the reformers and the hard-liners squaring off for a major confrontation in the 2012 presidential primaries, the 2010 Pennsylvania race could be a dramatic rehearsal, and is likely to attract a lot of attention.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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