EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the March 22, 2004, issue of National Review.
If you are a conservative upset about the Republican establishment’s big spending and accommodationism–especially if you’re upset enough to be thinking about boycotting Bush’s re-election–there is no excuse not to be supporting Pat Toomey. Arlen Specter has moved a little bit to the right for the primary season, but he remains, as my colleague John J. Miller put it six months ago, the worst Republican senator. He is enthusiastic about spending: Citizens Against Government Waste gives him an anemic 51 percent rating. He supports the labor-union agenda, taxpayer funding of abortion, cloning, and quotas. He usually opposes tort reform, although on a few occasions it has been possible to drag him into supporting it.
When the Senate was debating a bill to make sure that American soldiers could not be hauled before the International Criminal Court, he was the only Republican senator to vote against it. (John Kerry voted for it.) He’s an opponent of school choice, calling it unconstitutional and expressing the hope that the Supreme Court will come around to this view. His latest cause is settling the asbestos-litigation mess by putting taxpayers on the hook for the bills. The prospect of Specter’s becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as he is in line to do if he gets re-elected, makes conservative Senate staffers toss and turn at night. They know that Chairman Specter will no longer have to worry about offending Pennsylvania conservatives. This will be his last term; he will be 80 by the time of the next election.
Toomey, on the other hand, is a “taxpayer superhero,” according to Citizens Against Government Waste. He’s a supply-side tax-cutter. His primary interest in serving in Congress has been to shrink the size and scope of the federal government. He is a strong advocate of a private-account option for Social Security. He is also, within the limits of his congressional district–a heavily Democratic steel town–a free trader (far more so than Specter). Toomey is a strong ally of social conservatives, supporting bans on cloning and abortion, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. He has voted against amnesties for illegal immigrants.
Taking down an incumbent senator in a primary is hard. The White House and Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s other Republican senator, have made Toomey’s race harder by coming out strong for Specter. Santorum and his colleagues have endorsed Specter in part because he is already part of the club. But there’s another reason for the endorsements, a reason that may sway some conservative voters, too. The only half-good justification for a conservative to support Specter over Toomey is that Specter would have a better chance than Toomey of keeping the seat Republican in November. With Republicans holding only 51 seats in the Senate, the majority is (supposedly) at stake.
But that argument has a number of holes. First, Toomey would have a good shot at winning the general election. He has won over Democrats before, in his district. His ideological profile–pro-private accounts, pro-life–is close to that of Santorum, who won re-election comfortably in 2000. Santorum, indeed, ran six points ahead of Bush. Second, it is not clear that having nominal control of the Senate matters that much in terms of legislative accomplishment. The Senate is not like the House, where electing a 218th member, even a lousy one, spells the difference between the passage of conservative and liberal bills. Third, Republicans are almost certainly going to keep the Senate even if they lose Specter’s seat. The worst case is that Republicans lose a seat in Illinois, gain a seat in Georgia, and win at least two of the races in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. That would leave them up one. If they lose Pennsylvania, too, they will be right back where they started, at 51. Well, not quite: They will be a more conservative caucus, and one whose most liberal members know that they can go only so far before they run the risk of losing a primary.
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