Specter's Stimulus Vote Looms Large in Race

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, April 13 -- Sen. Arlen Specter's support for President Obama's stimulus package has recharged a political rivalry, setting up what could be a divisive rematch between one of the GOP's leading moderates and a powerful conservative activist.

Pat Toomey, head of the anti-tax Club for Growth, stepped down from the post Monday, the first move in what his aides say is an almost-certain run against Specter in next year's Republican Senate primary. In the 2004 primary, Specter defeated Toomey by 17,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

Even though the race is a year away, Specter has taken the rare step of running attack ads against Toomey, attempting to link his work as a trader on Wall Street in the 1980s and 1990s with the current economic crisis.

Both men say the stimulus will be a chief issue. Specter, one of three Republicans who voted for the stimulus, is campaigning throughout the state to hold his job and appeared Monday at a police station in Darby just outside Philadelphia. Officers there praised him for backing the $787 billion stimulus bill, which will provide the department $220,000 in funding to buy equipment.

"I know it posed the risk of costing me my seat, but that's a risk I'm prepared to take because I thought it was very important to pass," Specter said in an interview, referring to the stimulus package.

Toomey, who is trying to set up his campaign organization before an official announcement, said the stimulus vote illustrates why he will win this time: With Obama in the White House and Democrats in charge of Congress, Republicans will want every GOP vote to be a reliable check against the Democrats.

"Senator Specter is outside of the mainstream of the Republican consensus," Toomey said in an interview. "Literally every House Republican voted no, and all but three of the Senate Republicans voted no."

Specter, a 79-year-old known on Capitol Hill for his political independence and for being a bit of a curmudgeon, has long drawn conservative consternation. In 2004, Republicans considered stripping him of his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee after he suggested that he would prefer the appointment of judges who back abortion rights, which he supports. But party officials, including President George W. Bush, backed Specter over Toomey in 2004.

But the political landscape for Specter is much different this time around compared with 2004. The competitive Democratic primary between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama last year spurred tens of thousands of Pennsylvania Republicans to switch their registration to Democratic. Specter is openly encouraging them to switch back, even telling a group of retailers he met with Monday in Philadelphia, "I don't know if there are any Democrats in this room. If there are, I'm going to need you to become Republicans, Republicans at least for a day."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has written a letter to fellow Republicans asking them to support Specter.

"While I doubt Arlen could win an election in my home state of Texas, I am certain that I could not get elected in Pennsylvania," Cornyn wrote. "I believe that Senator Specter is our best bet to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column."

Specter's stimulus vote drew such strong opposition from conservatives nationwide that Toomey dropped his flirtations with a gubernatorial run to focus on the Senate contest, expecting angry conservatives will contribute to his campaign coffers.

Recent history complicates the race for Toomey, 47, who represented the Allentown area in the House from 1999 to 2005. Specter has argued that a conservative such as Toomey cannot win in an increasingly blue Pennsylvania, an argument bolstered by Democrats' easy victories over incumbent Rick Santorum in a 2006 Senate race and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in last year's presidential campaign. "Rick Santorum lost because it was 2006," Toomey said. "It was a terrible year for Republicans. It has nothing to do with 2010."

Specter has used the economic crisis to launch a populist attack against Toomey, criticizing not only his Wall Street work but also his past support for privatizing Social Security accounts, which Specter says could have exposed benefits to the same kind of dramatic losses some workers have suffered in their 401(k) plans in the past several months.

Specter has ruled out running as an independent, and state law prevents such a bid if he loses the primary. He seems prepared for a tough campaign against Toomey. Specter made five stops around the Philadelphia area Monday, often touting federal funds he had brought to the state. He constantly notes his recovery from Hodgkin's lymphoma -- diagnosed in 2005 -- as well as his daily squash matches, which he and his staff invited reporters and photographers to attend.

Specter was repeatedly asked about the stimulus bill and its effect on the economy, and everyone around him seemed aware that the topic probably would define his future.

"You can minimize that and say it's just another vote, but this bill would not have passed if not for Arlen Specter," said Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), who appeared with Specter in Darby and praised the longtime senator for his bipartisanship. "This stimulus package that we're going around and every congressman is passing out checks, all over the country, is because of a man named Arlen Specter."

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