Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and George Voinovich blamed the Club for Growth for imposing a right-wing litmus test that chased Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party. The Club for Growth blamed Specter — first for helping to ruin the GOP and then for leaving it. A leading Republican strategist blamed the party for turning its back on moderates. Sen. Lindsey Graham sniped at Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Specter’s pollster blamed the stimulus bill. Karl Rove blamed Specter himself.
And the National Republican Senatorial Committee set about trying to taint Specter among Pennsylvania Democrats by reminding them that he was once aligned with Republican President George W. Bush.
In the nasty game of Who Lost Specter, only Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to go unscathed — although his pain will come as he tries to lead a caucus that is likely to be too small to stand in the way of anything the Democrats want to do.
Specter decided to switch parties after concluding that there was no way he could beat former Rep. Pat Toomey in next year’s Republican primary. That made the Club for Growth — the free-market group Toomey once led — a fat target for Republican ire Wednesday, and both Hatch and Voinovich took aim.
Voinovich, a moderate Republican from Ohio who is retiring, said the Republican Party needs to step in more forcefully when the Club for Growth or other organizations try to vilify moderate incumbents in blue states.
“They’re really not interested in Republicans, even ones that are relatively conservative — ‘If you don’t pass my litmus test, then you don’t qualify,’” Voinovich said of groups like the Club.
Asked if the Club for Growth was a problem, Voinovich said, “I think it is. I think it’s a big problem.”
Hatch, the No. 2 man at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Toomey can’t win in a general election in Pennsylvania — and that by chasing out Specter, the Club for Growth and its backers may have cost the GOP another seat in the Senate.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with leadership; it had to do with Club for Growth,” the Utah Republican said of Specter’s switch. “I wish they’d spend their money going after Democrats, rather than Republicans. ... Let’s just be honest about it: In blue states, we’re not going to get conservative Republicans. It’s just that simple.”
Hatch added: “If they spent their money going after Democrats in red states, they’d be doing America a great service.”
But Andy Roth, the Club for Growth’s vice president for government affairs, said the Republican Party is at its nadir precisely because it has tolerated the likes of Specter.
“Let’s look at what a big-tent Republican Party gets you,” said Roth. “Over the last eight years, we had Big Government with a party that had no identity. People like Specter destroyed the Republican brand.”
“The reason why Arlen Specter left is because of Arlen Specter, not because of the Club for Growth or Pat Toomey,” he said.
Specter edged out Toomey in the 2004 Republican primary. Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, said Specter failed to learn from that close call.
"How about Specter bearing some responsibility?" Rove said in an email to POLITICO. "He won six years ago against Toomey -- why didn't he use the last six years to cement himself better?"
Recounting a recent trip to Pennsylvania, Rove said he heard Republicans there complain that Specter would show up only when his name was on the ballot.
And the forme Bush adviser said it's entirely possible for a moderate Republican to remain popular in states where the Republican Party is more conservative, pointing to Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
But other Republicans said the party itself has to share the blame — or at least engage in some serious introspection about why a five-term member would switch to the other side.
While acknowledging that Specter’s defection was “about political survival,” veteran GOP strategist John Weaver said the party must be concerned about its “political relevance.”
“If [President Barack] Obama and the Democrats control not just the left side of the playing field but also the broad middle, then we are in for generations of irrelevancy,” Weaver said. “Yes, our party principles are important. But we better be more pragmatic in how we advance our cause. There can be a center-right governing party. There cannot be one only from the right.”
Weaver said there’s “plenty of blame to go around,” and that Specter himself should receive his fair share. But he also pointed a finger at Steele, the RNC chairman, who undercut Specter by suggesting, in a recent TV interview, that he could be open to supporting primary challenges to Specter and the other GOP senators who supported Obama’s stimulus plan.
“I would remind Mr. Steele and some of our party leaders: Theirs is a job of winning elections, of increasing party strength, not of forming some sort of party purity police so this grand experiment to shrink the base to its purest form finds us confined to a phone booth,” Weaver said.
The RNC didn’t move to keep Toomey out of the race or indicate a preference for the incumbent, something sources close to Steele believe Specter wanted.
Asked about Specter’s departure Wednesday, RNC spokesman Trevor Francis said: “The sole regret is taking him at his word that he would run as a Republican and he wouldn’t violate the commitments he made to Pennsylvania voters and those that supported him, even in a primary.”
Steele himself said Tuesday that Specter never talked with him about switching parties. During an appearance on CNN, Steele said Specter had been “disrespectful” and “downright rude” and added: “I’m sure his mama didn’t raise him this way, and it’s a shame that he’s behaving this way today.”
Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, said Wednesday that Steele had gone too far.
“It was not a good statement,” Graham said. “I thought Michael was mad and frustrated. The key is to find people who can win. I’m not out just to beat Arlen Specter. I’m out to build the Republican Party. ... Michael, you go find somebody who can run in Pennsylvania and can win.”
Senate Republicans, both publicly and privately, have largely absolved McConnell and the rest of the leadership for failing to prevent the defection.
In their view, McConnell had little chance of dissuading Specter from making the jump to the Democrats. Specter met privately with McConnell on Monday night to tell him that internal polling showed he could not win reelection as a Republican in Pennsylvania next year. Specter announced his decision to leave the GOP the next morning.
“Everybody views this as a Specter decision about Specter’s political prospects in Pennsylvania and really nothing more and nothing less,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t sense at all that his decision is in any way attributable to the way [Specter] was treated here. ... They went out of their way, I think the leadership did in the past, to accommodate him when they needed to.”
Specter’s pollster, Glen Bolger, suggested that once Specter knew how dire his poltical outlook was, there was no chance of keeping him in the GOP.
“I don’t know that anybody could have turned him around,” Bolger said.
Bolger, who presented Specter with the ugly poll results last week, said the die was cast when Specter voted for the stimulus package.
“It was the tipping point,” Bolger said.
In the end, Specter’s sometimes quirky personality may also have played a role in his decision.
“Arlen could have woken up and said he was retiring to become a professional surfer and everyone would have said, ‘Well, Arlen is just being Arlen,’” joked a former Republican senator who served with Specter. “There is just no way of predicting what he’s going to do next.”