Yet even as his jilted former party slams the door behind him, the GOP is quietly pursuing a 2010 strategy that relies heavily on candidates nearly identical to Specter. The party’s road to winning back a Senate majority, it seems, is paved with moderates whose records are sure to make conservatives blanch.
For the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s recruitment list for 2010 reads like a roster of some of the party’s best-known RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and squishes — the derisive terms applied to centrists by movement conservatives.
The party’s top choice for Florida’s open Senate seat is popular Gov. Charlie Crist, who raised eyebrows earlier this year with his vigorous advocacy of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package — he even went so far as to appear with Obama at a Florida rally in February. In Connecticut, the national GOP has lobbied former Rep. Rob Simmons — who holds a higher lifetime rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action group than Specter does — to challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.
In Delaware, where there is widespread consensus that just one Republican — Rep. Michael Castle, the co-founder of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership — can win Joe Biden’s former seat, the push is on to get him to announce for the Senate. Castle, one of three Republicans who voted for all six bills on the Democrats’ “100 hour” agenda in 2007, was the only Republican standing alongside Obama when he signed an executive order in March allowing federal funds for stem cell research.
In the Midwest, there’s Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, another leading centrist viewed as the GOP’s best hope of capturing a blue-state Senate seat — the one Obama vacated after he was elected president.
On the West Coast, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas is hoping to land self-proclaimed moderate businesswoman Carly Fiorina to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in a state that gave Obama 61 percent of the vote.
“I’m absolutely committed to recruiting candidates around the country that fit their states. Who would have thought we would be looking at states like Delaware, New York, Illinois and Connecticut for Republicans to run — and have a reasonably good shot at winning?” Cornyn told POLITICO. “It really is a recipe for permanent minority status and irrelevance if we don’t pay attention to the arithmetic and get back to a position so we can shape legislation.”
Specter himself might end up facing a Republican whose voting record will closely resemble his own. Amid speculation that national and state Republicans do not believe conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey can win statewide in Pennsylvania, two more moderates have surfaced as leading Senate prospects: Rep. Jim Gerlach and former Gov. Tom Ridge, whose chances of becoming John McCain’s running mate last year were hurt because of his support for abortion rights.
“Sen. Cornyn has done a great job with recruitment,” said Carl Forti, a Republican consultant who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure effort in 2006. “The ironic thing in the House and Senate is you need moderate candidates to win if you want to be successful. That’s why you currently see Pennsylvania Republicans looking for a moderate to take on Toomey, because of the belief that while Toomey is fine in a primary, he can’t win the general election because he’s too conservative. This will be an ongoing problem for the party.”
Cornyn’s approach doesn’t signal a rethinking o party orthodoxy as much as it reflects a political calculus that looks at factors other than ideological purity — such as personal popularity or a state’s recent voting trend lines.
“To compete nationally, the candidates really have to reflect the values of their states. The things the voters of Oklahoma or Alabama are looking for are not the same things that voters in Connecticut or Illinois are looking for in their senator,” said GOP pollster Hans Kaiser, who works for moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Democrats have also inadvertently shaped Cornyn’s recruitment efforts. Through miscue, scandal and vacancy, Democrats have presented prime pickup opportunities in states that would not have ordinarily been on the NRSC’s radar. Indeed, three of the most promising states for the GOP — Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois — are among the states in which Obama performed best in 2008.
“What’s happened is in these cases, the Democrats have screwed up,” said former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis, who has been a leading voice in arguing that the party needs to become more competitive in all regions. “They’re giving us the opportunities. People haven’t been voting for them; they’ve been voting against us. But if abortion is the litmus test, if guns are the litmus test, there’s no point in running anybody, because you’ll be noncompetitive in these areas.”
So far, the moderate lineup has met with little resistance from the right. For one thing, despite their centrist pedigree, most of the recruits have been fairly loyal party soldiers. Kirk gave other House Republican moderates political cover when he publicly released a memo detailing his opposition to the stimulus. Simmons has railed against the Democrats’ budget and called the new administration’s policies unfriendly to small businesses. Even Crist, who has been at odds with Florida conservatives, was one of John McCain’s most visible surrogates in the presidential race and has been a top fundraiser for the party.
“Their voting records are more moderate than the party as a whole, but I still think those candidates would hold Obama’s policies to a certain standard,” said Kaiser. “I don’t think they would be coming to Washington to see they make sure Obama got everything done he wants to do.”
Still, despite the focus on a moderate-rich recruiting class, it’s not a foregone conclusion that all of them will be on the ballot in November 2010. In Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania, viable conservative candidates are already running against the national party’s darlings.
In Connecticut, state Sen. Sam Caligiuri is running against Simmons and is expected to attack his moderate voting record in Congress. If Crist runs, he’ll have to defend his support of the stimulus against a more conservative opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. And any Republican who jumps into the Pennsylvania race will have to get past Toomey, whom conservatives laud for forcing Specter out of the party.
“It’s ironic but not surprising that the Senate Republicans would see a path that would be blazed by moderates,” said Republican pollster Adam Geller. “There’s a chunk of GOP voters that won’t make the political calculation and rather would stand with their principles, even if it means they lose.”
Cornyn isn’t officially taking sides in any of these primaries — at least not yet — but he is sending a clear message that there can’t be litmus tests for prospective GOP candidates.
“I voted against the stimulus. I thought it was a bad bill, spent too much and borrowed too much,” Cornyn said. “But I don’t think people who voted for it should be unwelcome in the Republican Party. In fact, I think the opposite.”