Senators' Actions Speak Loudly

A Quinnipiac poll released last Tuesday showed liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) leading his conservative primary challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.), 49% to 44%. And internal polling for both campaigns, I am told, has the race even closer than that as this Tuesday’s election approaches.

The consistent closeness of the polling puts a few things into perspective: for one, the decision by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) not to visit Pennsylvania in the final days of the campaign. Although this may indicate that these senators believe Specter is safe, the numbers make it look more like they are getting tired of spending time and money propping up the ailing incumbent. Frist told Roll Call he had a full schedule for this week, which sounds unconvincing considering the leader of the free world was stumping for Specter on Monday. Frist, who has already done plenty by raising $100,000 for Specter, doesn’t need to alienate conservatives while he’s plotting his 2008 presidential run.

Second, the poll numbers may shed light on why the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been more stingy with its resources than expected, sending Specter just $600,000 after talk of putting in more than twice as much. The official explanation to appear in Thursday’s Roll Call is that Specter looks safe, but the numbers don’t bear that out. Rather, indications are than all the money in the world will not be enough to save Arlen. Specter may still win, but his campaign has been feverishly burning all year to no effect, and there’s no reason to believe a little more will make a difference now. Specter will probably have spent $11 to $12 million by Tuesday’s primary. Yet in all the reputable polls, his numbers have remained totally flat, in the high forties for months, as Toomey has crept up behind.

Third, look at Frist’s decision to hold a cloture vote on asbestos litigation reform last week despite Specter’s public protestations. This was not necessary at all from the perspective of Senate business (cloture failed miserably, by ten votes, like everyone expected). Yet it forced an uncomfortable issue to the forefront for the union- and trial-lawyer-backed Specter at just the wrong time. He went to The Hill newspaper to denounce Frist’s move as “counterproductive,” when he should have instead been campaigning and speaking “on message.” Specter used the convenient excuse of his re-election campaign to skip the asbestos vote, but one has to ask at this point whether Frist is deliberately sabotaging Specter.

As is characteristic of candidates who feel they are in trouble, Specter has gone very negative in his campaign advertising, accusing Toomey, a businessman and restaurateur, of being “an out-of-control bar owner.” His ads about Toomey’s restaurants have actually been up for months now. But an experienced conservative Washington operative, not involved with either campaign, remarked Friday that Specter’s ads about Toomey appear to have backfired, giving the Allentown congressman far more name recognition than he could ever have bought with his modest $3 to $4 million campaign account.

The conservative Club for Growth PAC went up with a new ad Friday, in which a cancer survivor tells the story of how her doctor had to leave Pennsylvania because of high malpractice insurance costs. The woman, Barbara Clement, berates Specter for siding with trial lawyers on the issue of medical malpractice reform.

Without a presidential race on the ballot, turnout may come in as low as 27% on Tuesday, meaning that Toomey’s more passionate supporters have an excellent chance of carrying the day. As Specter put it in a recent C-Span appearance, “My opponent’s supporters…will come out in a blizzard. My supporters tend to be less intense.”

Draw your own conclusions, but I think I’d be preparing my resume if I were on Specter’s staff right now.