The fallout from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party continued this week as politicians jockeyed for position and rumors flew about who might be running in the key Senate race next year.
Mr. Specter’s decision affected not only Republicans and Democrats in the Senate race, but it could also alter the makeup of next year’s gubernatorial contest.
Former Governor and Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge is being hyped in media outlets statewide as a "big-name" candidate for the now-open GOP Senate race.
Nothing could be more unrealistic. After a lifetime of public service, Mr. Ridge had virtually no money to his name. Facing the prospects of putting several children through college, he leveraged his political experience and entered the private sector and now enjoys the benefits of a lucrative position. Earning a fraction of his current income likely would not appeal to Mr. Ridge.
Politically, his moderate positions would be a tough sell to the state’s conservatives, but above all, his pro-abortion stance could damage his chances.
According to Mike O’Connell, a longtime Pennsylvania political strategist, memory of former GOP Gov. Dick Thornburgh’s defeat by former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford in 1991 could serve as a factor in discounting a possible Ridge candidacy.
"The possibility [of Ridge] strikes me as far-fetched, not least because of the obvious comparisons to the last popular former governor — with no real interest to serve in the Senate — who was drafted by the GOP," Mr. O’Connell said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th, of Chester County, who currently is exploring a gubernatorial bid, could have the most realistic chance of entering the race and winning. The U.S. Senate would seem a natural progression for him due to his 18 years as a state and federal legislator.
Mr. O’Connell said he believes Mr. Gerlach will be taking a hard look at the race.
"He has a political base in southeastern Pennsylvania, and has proven he can win tough races," Mr. O’Connell said. "His voting record is broadly acceptable to Republican conservatives, yet he does not have the ideological edge that many swing voters in Pennsylvania find alarming."
The two major candidates already in the Senate contest are former U.S. Pat Toomey and conservative activist Peg Luksik. With Mr. Specter’s departure, both have lost one of their primary reasons for entering the Senate race in the first place.
Although Mr. Toomey has been largely discounted as being able to win the general election against the now Democratic U.S. senator, Mr. O’Connell says Mr. Toomey is unlikely to bow out.
"Toomey and his supporters are on a tremendous high after achieving what may have been their most important objective: driving Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party," Mr. O’Connell said. "No candidate who has scored such a victory is about to leave the field."
The only major candidate in the Democratic field is former National Constitution Center CEO Joseph Torsella, but most observers expect him to exit the race in the near future. This will likely come as pressure from the national and state Democratic parties mounts and his fundraising efforts completely evaporate.
One politician who has bucked the trend by fanning the flames of speculation that he might challenge Mr. Specter is U.S. Rep. Joseph Sestak, D-7th, of Delaware County. With a $3 million war chest and a 60-40 election win under his belt, a Sestak candidacy looks good on paper. But it is an extreme longshot.
Mr. Sestak has been mentioned as a possible senate candidate for over two years. Even though he could have been the first Democrat in the field — with all the advantages that position affords — he made no commitment to run.
Therefore, it goes against convention wisdom — and common sense — to think that he would announce a Senate candidacy now, considering he would be facing a 30-year incumbent with $7 million in campaign cash and the full backing of the Democratic establishment.
Look for Mr. Sestak to remain comfortably a congressman.
The bottom-line political reality is that Arlen Specter will have no major opponent in the Democratic primary. On the GOP side, rumors of contenders like Mr. Ridge, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton have absolutely no basis in reality, only serving as fodder for the political blogs.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]