When I reported on the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference (PLC) in Harrisburg last month, one of the things that was most startling was the number of elected officials who were critical of Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Penn) and supportive of conservative primary challenger Pat Toomey. Numerous state representatives and senators from the Keystone State among the record crowd of 600-plus attendees freely volunteered to me that they would support the insurgent former Rep. Toomey over the 79-year-old Specter, who has held the Senate seat since 1980.
It is easy to get conservative activists to condemn a moderate or liberal Republican incumbent in any office and back a challenger. But getting fellow members of “the club” — that is, elected officials — to back a challenger to an incumbent is rare. (When Ronald Reagan took on President Gerald Ford for nomination in 1976, the Californian was backed by five U.S. Senators, ten House Member, and one governor).
Coming on the heels of those surprise endorsements of Toomey was some defense and faint praise from an even unlikelier source: Pennsylvania State GOP Chairman Robert Gleason. In an interview with the Keystone State political blog politicspa.com, Gleason was asked about criticism from Specter supporters that stalwart conservative Toomey cannot be elected statewide.
“Of course he can be elected!” Gleason shot back, adding that views of a candidate on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage are far less important to voters than what one can do about the economy — a not-so-subtle reference to Toomey’s reputation as an anti-tax, pro-growth fiscal conservative and background as a small businessman.
The state party chairman’s remarks appeared to be a retort to the recent declaration of support for the liberal Specter from National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Cornyn (R.-Tex). In a letter to fellow Republicans, Cornyn wrote: “My job as head of the NRSC is to guide the GOP back to a majority in the Senate. I can’t do that without Arlen Specter. With him as our nominee, I can target our campaign resources toward beating Democrats and growing the Senate Republican Conference.”
In reporting on the Cornyn letter, the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill also noted that a past backer of Specter will not support him in 2010.
“If he asks for my support, I will tell him no,” former Rep. (1996-2008 John Peterson (R.Penn.) told The Hill. Although he stopped short of endorsing Toomey, Peterson’s remarks raised eyebrows because the former congressman had strongly backed Specter over then-Rep. Toomey in their tight (51% to 49%) primary in 2004. In joining then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Penn.) and all but two of his GOP colleagues from Pennsylvania to support Specter, Peterson appeared in commercials for the incumbent and helped him overcome Toomey by about 17,000 votes.
“I don’t think you’d find me supporting 80-year-olds for re-election,” Peterson added. “It’s not disrespect for him, but there is a time.” As to what advice he would give longtime friend Specter, Peterson replied: “Go enjoy your grandchildren.”
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