Democrats control the United States Senate with 58 votes, and it seems likely that the Republican incumbent from Minnesota, Norm Coleman, will lose his seat in the recount. With 59 votes, the Democrats would be only one vote short of cloture, the all-important mechanism where Republican filibusters could be defeated.
With just one seat being the difference in deciding cloture, perhaps the most closely watched senate race next year will be in Pennsylvania, where 30-year GOP incumbent Arlen Specter, labeled by some political observers as vulnerable, has already been running hard. But before Mr. Specter can contemplate the general election, he must survive the Republican primary— never an easy task for a moderate Republican in a state where conservatives are active primary voters.
Nonetheless, taking on a three-decade incumbent who will easily amass $15 to $20 million in campaign funds, in a race where the individual contribution limit is $2300, is a Herculean task.
Following is The Bulletin’s analysis of the GOP field, which could become more crowded in the coming months:
Pat Toomey: Second Time The Charm?
The most well-known and probably best-funded of Mr. Specter’s potential challengers is former Congressman and current Club For Growth (CFG) President Pat Toomey. CFG is a national organization which advocates fiscal conservatism and aggressively targets liberal Republicans for defeat.
Mr. Toomey possesses significant strengths, should he decide to run. By setting the stage in 2004, when he garnered 49% of the vote against Mr. Specter, he is regarded by many as having the best shot at winning a primary. His CFG contacts, many of whom are wealthy Wall Street-type executives, could instantly infuse substantial campaign cash into his coffers. And Mr. Toomey’s grassroots network is said to be quite extensive, having been honed since his last senate race.
Like any candidate, Mr. Toomey would be vulnerable in several ways. The most significant are his connections to Wall Street via the CFG, and his being the co-Chairman of a bank.
When Mr. Toomey was serving in Congress, an article published in Derivatives Magazine stated, "Not surprisingly, Toomey is virulently opposed to unnecessary regulation," and quoted Mr. Toomey as saying, "The trend in deregulation, beginning in the early 1980s, is one of the biggest reasons for the sustained economic expansion. I would like to see us continue to deregulate on many fronts, including the financial services industry."
Many Americans blame unregulated Wall Street excess and greed as the root causes of the nation’s economic crisis, a notion reinforced daily by stories of company bonuses being paid and private planes bought with taxpayer bailout money. Guilt by association could prove toxic, an opinion not lost on Peg Luksik, a conservative activist and potential Toomey rival. Ms. Luksik recently told The Bulletin that, "If I were the Democrats, I would lead every commercial with that."
Mr. Toomey has not committed to which race, if any, he intends to pursue. He is often mentioned as a candidate for the open gubernatorial contest next year, but recent indications have him leaning towards the senate seat. By delaying his decision, Mr. Toomey has opened the door to rival Luksik, who has stated her intention to stay in the race for the duration.
Peg Luksik: In Race To Stay
Conservative activist Peg Luksik has formed a committee and already begun raising money. A housewife and businesswoman, she has significant political experience, having run for governor three times. In the 1990 primary, she received 46% of the vote while raising just $45,000.
An ardent Pro-Life advocate, Ms. Luksik’s biggest strength is her grassroots network of conservative supporters. Her credentials were bolstered recently when she served as the campaign manager in a nationally followed race to unseat longtime Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John Murtha. Many credit her with organizing her candidate’s remarkable fundraising success— having raised over $3.5 million.
Perhaps Ms. Luksik’s biggest problem will be a potential split within the conservative establishment should Mr. Toomey enter the race. Barbs have already begun flying on political websites and blogs statewide, with supporters of each candidate attacking each other. At issue is whether two conservatives in the race will divide the right to an extent that would allow Sen. Specter to claim victory.
Such controversy could also hinder Ms. Luksik’s fundraising endeavors. She must raise enough money not only to advocate her positions, but also fend off attacks from both the Specter and Toomey campaigns. Should Mr. Toomey decide to compete, it is unclear which way the majority of conservative activists will break. The open question is who the undecided voters will choose. Will it be a woman with an unbroken pro-life record who has never held elected office? Or a former Congressman who came within 13,000 votes of defeating Mr. Specter, but who is linked to Wall Street and who, many say, was pro-choice when he first ran for Congress.
Sen. Specter: Defying The Odds
Arlen Specter has consistently defied the odds, and is one of only two statewide Republicans still standing. Democrats now enjoy a voter edge of over one million in the state, and whispers continue to percolate that his age and health make him vulnerable, but savvy politicos are well aware that the political graveyard is littered with those who underestimated his tenacity on the campaign trail.
Several of Mr. Specter’s recent votes have drawn the ire of conservatives, including his support of the economic stimulus plan and the nomination of David Ogden, a former attorney for the porn industry, for Deputy Attorney General.
Many political observers also believe the defection of moderate Republicans to the Democratic Party last year will further erode the Senator’s chances for re-election. However, a closer inspection reveals this to be more myth than reality, as many "moderate" Republicans do not often vote in primary elections.
The strengths of Mr. Specter are his fundraising ability, large war chest, and a dogged determination on the campaign trail. While some voters think Washington insiders are to blame for many of the country’s problems, it remains to be seen if they will reject a longstanding incumbent who brings significant federal funds into Pennsylvania.
Given the unprecedented economic uncertainty, conventional political wisdom may not hold for the senatorial primary, making it potentially one of the largest crapshoots in Pennsylvania political history.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]