A Good Day for Bush and the GOP in Pennsylvania

The Baehr Essentials

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, rejected a challenge to the Congressional redistricting plan in Pennsylvania that was first used to establish districts for the 2002 House races.  That plan, passed by a legislature with Republican majorities in both houses, and signed by the then—Republican governor (a Democrat, Ed Rendell, was elected in 2002), led to Republicans winning 12 of 19 US House seats in 2002. In 2000, they had won 11 of 21 seats (two Pennsylvania seats were eliminated after the 2000 census).

The Supreme Court's action almost certainly means that challenges to the new Texas redistricting plan will also be rejected by the Court.  That plan might add from 4 to 6 GOP members in the Texas delegation.  With the favorable districts in both states, the GOP is likely to not only hold its House majority in the 2004 Congressional elections, but probably add to it.

Yesterday's Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania was also good news for the party and the President.  Many conservatives found Representative Pat Toomey a lot more attractive candidate than incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter. But the reality is that Specter is now a strong favorite to hold his seat against his Democratic opponent, Philadelphia area Congressman Joe Hoeffel.  Hoeffel would have been the clear favorite for the open seat race against Toomey, had Toomey won the nomination.

The GOP has only 51 Senate seats and needs to defend highly vulnerable open seats in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Illinois, plus protect an endangered GOP incumbent Senator in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. Throwing another expensive Senate seat into play would have forced a diversion of the party's resources to hold the seat, and risked loss of control of the Senate if Toomey were defeated in November, and the Party suffered a net loss of one seat in the other Senate races.

There are many reasons for conservatives to be hesitant about Arlen Specter —— his vote against Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for other  moderate Republicans who had been sitting on the fence to oppose Bork.  Specter is pro—choice. Specter also refused to vote for President Clinton's impeachment on either count, claiming some arcane Scottish precedent for his vote. If you are a Kennedy assassination conspiracy buff, you know that Specter, as a young staffer, created the 'magic bullet' theory for the Warren Commission, which they then adopted to 'explain' the path of the bullet that wounded both President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, before winding—up on a gurney at Parkland General Hospital.  

But Specter's re—nomination is a big boon for the President's chances to carry Pennsylvania in the Fall, a major reason why Bush campaigned for Specter in the primary.  Pennsylvania is a huge target for Bush. He has visited the state more than any other since he came to office. If Bush carries Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes (he lost by 200,000 votes, or 5% in 2000), then it would likely force Kerry to carry both Florida and Ohio to win the election, a tough assignment even for a strong Democratic candidate, which Kerry may not be. 

Specter is one of two Jewish Republicans in the Senate (Minnesota's Norm Coleman is the other).  Bush has been a terrific supporter of Israel in its war against terrorism since becoming President.  The Bush campaign hopes to significantly increase his share of the Jewish vote, which is between 3% and 4% of the total vote in Pennsylvania. Specter on the ticket should help him do that in Pennsylvania.

Had Toomey won the primary, and the Senate seat become an open seat race, Democrats would have poured in millions of dollars to help Hoeffel, and probably would have attracted more Democrats to vote in November. With their Senate chances now much slimmer, Democratic turnout may be lower in November, which also helps Bush.

The Club for Growth, the anti—tax group led by Stephen Moore, raised and spent over $2 million trying to get Toomey nominated.  Despite this, Specter still outspent Toomey by over two—to—one in total, with over $17 million spent by both sides in the primary. This GOP civil war was therefore both costly and unfortunate.  The GOP needs unity in Pennsylvania to give Bush a victory in the state, and the state could be crucial to who wins the Presidential race in November.  This primary fight was different than the New Hampshire Senate race in 2002, when the White House did not endorse incumbent Bob Smith in the GOP primary, and John Sununu, the stronger general election candidate, went on to win the primary and hold the Republican seat in a tight contest against Governor Jeanne Shaheen.  In the Pennsylvania race, the White House clearly wanted to run with Specter. 

In some cases, conservatives have to accept that moderate GOP Senators and House members are better for the party than losing seats to Democrats.  If pro—lifers want only pro—life Republicans to represent the party, then they will likely write off control of the Senate, which does not help to advance their cause very much. Having a Senate majority enables bills to be brought up and passed, given GOP control of the House.  Senate rules allow filibusters, preventing a majority from acting when it is short of 60 votes at times, but it is hard to see how being in the minority would be an improved position.

Very conservative Republicans are not likely to win statewide very often in Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Illinois, Pennsylvania and a few other states. 

Conservatives argue that the election and then re—election of Senator Rick Santorum proves that a conservative such as Toomey could have won statewide in Pennsylvania this year.  I beg to differ. Santorum won his first race in 1994, a very strong Republican year, in which the party won control of both houses of Congress.  He held on in 2000 by a margin of 6%, while outspending his Democratic rival by more than 3 to 1. Santorum, to his credit, supported Specter in the primary race, standing with the President, despite criticism from conservatives.  Santorum realizes, I think, that a moderate Republican such as Specter is better for the party than a Democrat taking the seat.

Since the Bork vote, Specter has been a consistent supporter of judicial nominees put up by Republican Presidents.  He was a forceful voice in getting Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court through the closely divided Senate, which had a majority of Democrats at the time.  The scare tactic used by conservatives, the specter that Specter will soon chair the Senate's Judiciary committee sometime in the future, does not square with his generally conservative voting record on judicial nominees.  

Republicans who want to marginalize the party and make it a non—factor in certain Northeastern and Midwestern states, only need to continue creating these bruising primary fights against incumbent GOP Senators and House members, whom they believe are not conservative enough. This desire for the perfect nominee came within a few thousand votes of potentially costing the GOP control of the Senate.

The GOP also stands to gain from the Senate race outcome in Pennsylvania's House races. Hoeffel's suburban Philadelphia district (the 13th) is now an open seat. With the more moderate Specter running for Senate, the GOP's chances to win this House seat are enhanced, given the edge this swing district gave to Gore over Bush in 2000, and Hoeffel's modest 4% win in 2002.  The son of Penn State's legendary football coach Joe Paterno was nominated to run for another House seat (the 17th district) that went narrowly to the Democrats in 2002, in a district Bush won by 15% in 2000. The GOP has done well with college football stars and coaches as nominees in the past —— think Steve Largent, J.C. Watts, Tom Osborne (and for baseball fans, remember Vinegar Ben Mizell).

Nothing in this article should be read as an attack on Pat Toomey.  He is young, and should have a solid political future. He now has statewide name recognition, which can be used to his advantage in 2010, assuming he makes another run at the seat (assuming Specter holds the seat this year and then retires when his term is up, when he would be 80 years of age).  The Republicans will have to fight to hold Toomey's House seat this year (the 15th district), which Gore won by 1% in 2000. All in all, Karl Rove is probably smiling today.  Rove wants to get the President re—elected, and hold or increase the small Republican majorities in both houses of Congress come November.  The results in Pennsylvania Tuesday make that more likely.