Electability: Who can win PA’s U.S. Senate Seat in 2010?

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

As the 2010 race for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat takes shape the debate has already begun within the Republican Party as to who would be the most viable candidate against the eventual Democratic nominee in the General Election. It is, of course a good question because it would do the party no good to nominate someone who could not ultimately prevail and keep the seat in the GOP column.

There are, as with most things political, many ways of approaching this issue. Given the trouncing the GOP has taken in the last two federal election cycles it would be easy to write off the seat as unwinnable by any Republican. And, with the defection of a quarter million Republicans to the Democratic Party last year and the million plus voter registration edge now enjoyed by the Democrats, Republican prospects would appear rather grim.

But, the past is not always prologue. In 1992 then-President George H.W. Bush was tossed from office by Bill Clinton in a sweeping Democratic tide. Just two years later, in 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in generations. The political fortunes of parties can turn around dramatically in short spaces of time. Already President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are dropping. With an economic crisis and growing foreign challenges it impossible to say now what the mood of the electorate will be in November of 2010.

Another factor is the rather weak stable of candidates expressing an interest in the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate. Three years ago Democrats recruited Robert P. Casey, Jr., heir to the most magical name in statewide politics, to run against then U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. Add in the fact Santorum had painted himself into a political corner as an unabashed social conservative, plus a wave election in favor of the Democrats and he was swept from office in a political perfect storm.

As we approach next year’s election, no such Democratic heavyweight is considering the race. The potential candidates include state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who is also reportedly considering a run for Governor; three southeastern Pennsylvania Congressmen – Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy and Allison Schwartz; and State Representative Josh Shapiro. The only announced candidate to date is Joe Torsella, who lost a primary bid for Congress to Schwartz.

On the Republican side conventional wisdom would hold that as a long tenured incumbent U.S. Senator Arlen Specter would be a shoe-in for re-election. In fact he enters the primary a decided underdog. One of the few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, Specter finds himself increasingly out of step with a Pennsylvania Republican Party that is growing more conservative by the day. Specter’s vote in favor of the Obama economic stimulus plan has roiled the party’s base. He has, in effect, done a Santorum in reverse by painting himself in a liberal corner.

Enter Club for Growth President Pat Toomey who now appears certain to challenge Specter in the Republican Primary. Toomey, then a Congressman from the Lehigh Valley, received over 49% of the votes when he ran against Specter five years ago. Much has changed since then, including the fact many Republican moderates have switched to the Democratic Party, and Toomey has emerged as one of the pre-eminent fundraisers nationally for conservative candidates. With Specter on the left and anti-abortion activist Peg Luksik on the right, Toomey actually enters the primary as the candidate of the center-right. That of course is the position usually occupied by the winning candidate.

The Specter camp, realizing it is out of step with the Republican base, is now falling back on the argument that the incumbent is the most electable candidate in November. But the fact is Specter is the more vulnerable general election candidate. To be successful in the fall any candidate for any office must first have the enthusiastic support of his or her own party’s base. That will never, under any circumstances, happen for Specter. Antipathy among conservatives is such that, at best, they will sit out the fall election seeing no practical difference between Specter and the Democrats. Specter’s efforts to appeal to moderate Democrats will only drive the wedge with his own base even deeper.

Toomey, however, would energize his party’s base. He also has broad appeal to conservative, so-called "Reagan Democrats" especially those in western Pennsylvania who often vote for Republican candidates. He is from the Lehigh Valley, another important swing area in statewide elections. A well funded Toomey campaign could essentially reconstruct the winning coalition that has resulted in past statewide Republican victories.

And so, at this early stage, many candidates can make a case for their own electability. But it is way too early to predict the outcome. In the months preceding the 2008 Presidential primaries conventional wisdom forecast a Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani General Election match-up. Neither was nominated and the man who couldn’t win, Barack Obama, today sits in the Oval office.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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