By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
It's little wonder that religious conservatives are cheering Arlen Specter's departure from the Republican Party; the Pennsylvania senator's liberal views on abortion rights and gay rights made him a Republican In Name Only, in their eyes. But will the Pennsylvania senator's defection be a pyrrhic victory for the Christian right?
Fueling Specter's jump to the Democratic column was his primary-race challenge from Pat Toomey, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who won wide support from conservative evangelical leaders during his 2004 primary race against Specter. That backing, including an endorsement from Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, helped get Toomey within 2 percentage points of beating Specter. This despite the fact that President Bush, who was then popular, repeatedly traveled to Pennsylvania to stump for the longtime GOP incumbent.
The day after he was re-elected to his seat in November 2004, Specter—in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—put his thumb in the Christian right's eye by warning the White House against nominating judges who oppose abortion rights to the Supreme Court. "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a women to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely" that they would be confirmed by the Senate, Specter announced.
Conservative Christian activists like Dobson went ballistic. The GOP had regained control of the Senate just in time for a string of expected Supreme Court victories, and the Republican point man on judges was already standing in the way of anti-Roe judges? The reason that Dobson and his ilk hit the campaign trail for Republicans like never before in 2004 was to lay the groundwork for an anti-Roe Supreme Court majority.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Christian right succeeded in forcing Specter to sign a pledge vowing to forgo applying a "litmus test" to the president's Supreme Court picks. But the movement still didn't trust him. And today, with his defection, they're glad to be rid of him.
"[A]s leader of the 'Moderate' caucus of the Senate Republican Conference he has done the Party a disservice and is a detriment to the Conservative cause," Manuel Miranda, a conservative activist who focuses on judges, said in an E-mail message today. ". . . [T]he first goal for Republicans must be to be rid of leaders who have done the Party more harm than good."
But it may be that Specter's switch today will do the party more harm than good. A darling among conservative Pennsylvanians, Pat Toomey will be hard-pressed to carry a state that gave Obama an 11-point advantage last year.
When conservatives have run favored candidates in purple states like Pennsylvania in recent years, Democrats have won handily. Kenneth Blackwell, who helped lead the Ohio effort to ban gay marriage, persevered in the 2006 Ohio Republican gubernatorial primary, thrilling conservative Christians. But Blackwell lost by a humiliating 60-to-37 percent margin in the general election.
If Pat Toomey meets a similar fate in Pennsylvania next year, will Christian conservatives reassess their strategy and sign on to Michael Steele's vision for a big-tent GOP? I doubt it. But it may mean a long time in the political wilderness.