Faced with a high-profile defection and the prospect of political irrelevance in the Senate, Republicans took off the gloves Wednesday for a ferocious game of finger-pointing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
Isn’t this fun, kids? It’s like musical electric chairs or pin the tail on the elephant!
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.”
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.
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.
Senate Republicans, both publicly and privately, have largely absolved McConnell and the rest of the leadership for failing to prevent the defection.
“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 political outlook was, there was no chance of keeping him in the GOP.
“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.”