Is former congressman Pat Toomey (R.) too conservative to win a statewide election in Pennsylvania?
“Well, you never know. . . . I think there is a widespread opinion that he may be too conservative,” says Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.). Citing a recent Quinnipiac poll that shows Toomey losing to Sen. Arlen Specter, who recently became a Democrat, Gerlach goes on: “There are many in the party who would like to see more of a centrist-moderate candidate to try to take on Senator Specter [next] year. . . . There’s a widespread concern that Pat’s profile may not be the kind that can win in November against Specter.”
Behind the cover of this low-key answer, Gerlach’s surrogates have been savaging Toomey’s electability in the national press, which strongly suggests that Gerlach is interested in entering the fray. Mark Campbell, Gerlach’s campaign spokesman, had to apologize after falsely telling the Politico that staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee had trashed Toomey when he spoke to them.
Toomey, whose candidacy in the GOP primary prompted Specter to switch parties, stands alone in the Republican field. Former governor Tom Ridge (R), who many moderates had hoped would enter next May’s Senate primary, opted against the move last week. But the nomination is still not necessarily Toomey’s for the taking.
Gerlach, who describes himself as a “moderate centrist,” now has a decision to make. He is currently operating a statewide exploratory campaign for Pennsylvania’s governor’s office, which will be open next year. That committee can raise unlimited funds from its donors under Pennsylvania’s loose campaign-finance laws. But Gerlach has still not ruled out a Senate run. Nor has he ruled out running for re-election in his suburban Philadelphia district, which narrowly re-elected him last year (but also gave more than 60 percent of its vote to President Obama).
Gerlach has held his extremely competitive seat against all comers since it was created in 2002, even as Republicans around him were defeated in the 2006 and 2008 elections. He credits his political survival to his willingness to cast some independent votes. “People will look beyond your party registration if they see you’re really working on the issues that are important to them in your area, and that you’re also applying some common sense when voting,” he says. “You’re not just going to be a knee-jerk vote for either party.”
“I think if you look at my total voting record, I’m pretty moderate,” he continues. “I think that reflects my district.”
With his 60 percent rating with the American Conservative Union, Gerlach bucks both his party and the conservative line rather frequently, although not nearly as much as Specter did before his party switch (ACU lifetime: 44 percent). Gerlach describes himself as an opponent of abortion who supports government funding of experimentation on embryos. He voted against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Since coming to Congress in 2002, he has voted against energy exploration in ANWR and on the outer continental shelf.
Gerlach’s re-election ads have emphasized his fiscal conservatism, but he does not have a record of penny-pinching, either. For example, he voted against House Republicans’ version of the budget in 2008. He voted in favor of government funding for Planned Parenthood. He also voted in favor of earmarks in 42 of the 50 opportunities he had in 2007 in the House. Toomey, his prospective primary opponent, presided over the fiscally conservative Club for Growth when it scored those votes on a “RePORK Card.” Gerlach was one of 39 Republicans who voted for the Democrats’ mortgage-bailout program last year.
But unlike Specter, Gerlach did not vote for the Employee Free Choice Act. “I oppose it because, as written, it isn’t going to do anything to prevent fraud or abuse or coercive activity to get someone to agree to the formation of a union,” he told me. “Specter now seems to have taken the position that he wouldn’t support it right now under the current economic conditions. So I guess he’s leaving open to flip back again to supporting it.”
Opinion polls tell different stories about just how vulnerable Specter is right now. But after Specter’s party switch prompted so much coverage of the Republican party’s problems, it has become a public-relations nightmare both for Specter himself and for his new party. Senate Democrats, by denying Specter the Senate seniority to which he thought he was entitled, have also nearly eliminated his stated rationale for remaining in the Senate. As he put it in announcing his conversion to the Democratic party, “my seniority is very important to continue to bring important projects vital to Pennsylvania’s economy.”
If Specter survives as the Democrats’ nominee — which is not guaranteed — he may be extremely vulnerable by next year to any challenger, left, right, or center. And in a Republican primary, one might expect Toomey’s conservative record and his better name recognition, from his challenge to Specter in 2004, would benefit him against someone like Gerlach — moderate and low in star power.
Toomey is a conservative who won repeatedly in a Democratic district before retiring in 2005. He can run a conservative-versus-moderate race against Gerlach, and perhaps he can win — but it will be a very different race from the one he would run against Specter. Gerlach lacks Specter’s history of high-profile opportunism and betrayal, memorialized by such terms as “borking” and “Scottish law,” which helped Toomey come within inches of beating Specter in April 2004.
Gerlach is the kind of moderate far more common on the Republican side — the kind who talks about “common-sense solutions” in health care, votes with environmentalists, brings home the bacon, and picks his issues when he votes against the party. This is in sharp contrast to Specter, who reveled in creating public intra-party controversy in Washington and triangulated himself frequently in order to gain positive media attention at his colleagues’ expense.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.