WASHINGTON--Like many members of the House of Representatives, Pat Toomey, a 41-year-old Pennsylvania Republican, hankers to move to the chamber on the other side of the Capitol. But he has a wee problem. Pennsylvania already has two Republican senators. Rick Santorum, 45, is a rising star--he is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the third-highest leadership post--midway through his second term. The other Republican senator is Arlen Specter, 73, who next year will seek his fifth term.
Toomey, who term-limited himself by pledging to serve only three terms and who is in his third, says, with sincere serenity, he will defeat Specter in next year's Republican primary and then will hold the seat for the party. The political savants in the White House may think that Toomey's plan, although undoubtedly stimulating, is something they could do without. Which is why Andrew Card, chief of staff of a White House that is not bashful about intervening in candidate-selection processes, appeared at a luncheon that raised about $100,000 for Specter--in Toomey's district.
The president's people, remembering the 36-day tussle for Florida's electoral votes, would rather not do without Pennsylvania's 21 next year. George W. Bush lost the state in 2000, in spite of his ardent wooing of Pennsylvanians, assisted by their popular Republican governor, Tom Ridge.
Today Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, a pugnacious former mayor of Philadelphia and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Bush has visited Pennsylvania 18 times as president, evidence that he thinks carrying the state next year will be difficult enough without Republicans being divided by a Senate primary fight.
Toomey, unshakably sanguine, says, essentially: Piffle. Pennsylvania, he insists, is a ``swing state" but trending Republican, and his candidacy will help the entire ticket because he, unlike Specter, is a full-throated, tax-cutting, government-limiting Republican. Toomey says his voting record resembles that of Santorum, who has run and won statewide twice.
Toomey notes that Specter has had primary challenges in each of his last two races and, although none of the challengers were well-funded or taken seriously, Specter lost about one-third of the vote. That, says Toomey, means that one-third of the vote in a Republican primary--a closed primary; only Republicans can participate--will vote for anyone against Specter.
Republican activists have--as their party's symbol, the elephant, supposedly does--long memories. They remember that Specter was one of only six Republican senators to vote in 1987 against confirming Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
Toomey says, ``We've got three parties in Congress--Republicans, Democrats and Appropriators." When Toomey first ran for Congress, he criticized his opponent, a state legislator, for opposing repeal of taxes on toothpaste and dental floss. All this is music to the ears of Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, which supports fiscally conservative Republicans against Republicans it considers markedly less so. Moore calls Toomey's challenge to Specter ``the most important Senate election in the nation in 2004."
In his announcement of his Senate campaign, Toomey showed that ``kinder" and ``gentler" are not his bywords. He used both the L-word (referring to Specter's ``liberal vision") and the K-word (he said Specter had ``joined Ted Kennedy" in sponsoring a bill to permit experimental human cloning). Toomey charged that in 1986 and 1987 Specter opposed President Reagan's positions ``more than any other Republican senator" and that ``Specter has opposed President Bush more than all but two Republican senators." The two, according to Toomey's staff, are Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
But Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, says Specter has been ``one of the nation's most durable career politicians" since being elected district attorney in Democratic Philadelphia in 1965. And Specter's record is more mixed than Toomey's portrayal of it. Barone writes, ``More than anyone else, he defeated Robert Bork in 1987 and, more than anyone else but (then Sen.) John Danforth, he secured the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991. In 1994 his devastatingly complex chart describing the Clinton health care plan played no small part in defeating it."
Toomey notes that Rendell, who got his first job after law school from Specter, and appeared in an ad for Specter in 1998, may not encourage a strong Democratic challenger. But such a plan could backfire if, as Toomey insists, the Democratic nominee will not be running against Specter. This internecine scrap, in a state Al Gore carried by four points, could affect next year's presidential drama.