Politics & Policy

Primary Base

Arlen Specter reaches urges Democrats to vote in the Republican primary.

Sen. Arlen Specter is wooing an unusual demographic of voters in the upcoming Pennsylvania Republican party: Democrats.

According to the weekly alternative Pittsburgh City Paper, Specter held a breakfast fundraiser at Oakland’s Concordia Club on Feb. 22 with a group of about 60 Jewish donors, mostly registered Democrats. The senator pointed out to the crowd that they still had time to register as Republicans, and then change their registration back to the Democratic party after the GOP primary on April 27.

The Pennsylvania primaries are “closed,” in that only those registered as party members can vote in its primary–no independents. However, voters who want to change their registration, or to simply register to vote in the primary, have until March 29 to complete the paperwork. Specter is facing the most-serious primary challenge of his career from conservative congressman Pat Toomey of Lehigh Valley.

“His aides distributed voter registration forms,” the alternative weekly reported. “The liberal Philadelphia Republican also informed his listeners that an ad promoting the crossover registration of Democrats would appear soon in every Jewish newspaper in Pennsylvania. He concluded that the appeal for conversion by saying with a twinkle, ‘I’m not asking you to come to the Republican Jewish Coalition.’”

“I want to do what Gov. [Ed] Rendell did in the 2002 primary,” Specter told the Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia-based weekly paper. In 2002, about 17,000 voters in the Rendell’s base of southeastern Pennsylvania switched to the Democratic party during the recent open-registration period, vaulting him to the Democratic nomination and the governor’s office. Many GOP voters in the suburbs of Philly liked the blunt, colorful, sometimes obnoxious and profane Rendell, and concluded local ties outweighed partisan ties.

The political action committee of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition launched a “Women for Arlen” campaign in February with a direct-mail campaign targeting the 20,000 voters who switched parties two years ago.

“These voters switched parties to help elect Governor Ed Rendell,” says RPCC National Co-Chair Jennifer Blei Stockman. “We are urging them to switch back to help reelect Senator Specter.”

The strategy, while legal, is not sitting well with Toomey.

“I think it speaks volumes about a candidate that has to go to the other party for support,” Toomey told the Exponent. He contended that the Democrats that Specter is courting now will just vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate, Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, in the general election anyway. “Sen. Specter has had some very tough re-elections in the past because he thinks he can rely on the liberals.”

Republicans are divided on whether Specter’s get-out-the-Democratic-vote strategy will prove effective.

“It’s a strange appeal,” says David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, which has run several ads critical of Specter. “That’s what political parties are for. Each party is supposed to nominate the candidate that they like best, not the candidate that somebody else likes best. It’s entirely legal, but it’s not going to rub a lot of Republicans the right way.”

Most state Republican-party leaders, including Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative by almost any standard, have endorsed Specter. Mike DeVany, executive director of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, says he didn’t see anything inherently wrong with Specter’s outreach to Democrats.

“I’m in favor of as many people as possible registering with the Republican party,” DeVany says. “I would prefer that they did that because they believe in the values and direction of the party.”

DeVany says it’s too early to tell who will win the primary, but both candidates “have laid the groundwork for the home stretch.

“Outside of the television-ad wars, there has not seen a massive intensity,” DeVany says. “I think there is an intensity among religious conservative activists on that end, and now that the commercials are up and running, I think we’ll start to see some activity in other parts of the party.”

Keating, an enthusiastic backer of Toomey, says the ad campaign will only intensify in the campaign’s final six weeks.

The Club for Growth has spent $500,000 on advertising in the race so far, at a pace of about $40,000 per day. The current ads, pointing out that Specter and Kerry voted the same way 70 percent of the time, are in every market in the state, often and widely enough so that “the average person is going to see it multiple times,” Keating says.

Thirty days before the election, outside groups like CFG aren’t allowed to run ads, but political-action committees are. The Club’s PAC is readying a sum in the neighborhood of $400,000 for commercials in the last month, and is currently producing a commercial about Specter’s votes for tax hikes that Keating described as “humorous, but with kind of a hard edge.”

Toomey’s camp is optimistic that current polls show Specter’s lead to be ten or nine points, and point out that historically, challengers get a late surge around the final weekend.

In six weeks time, the exit polling will be almost as interesting as the poll results themselves: Will the winning Republican candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania be the choice of actual Republicans?

Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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