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Pennsylvania

So Tom Ridge is out (sorry, Reihan). However, before we move on, what are we to make of that early poll showing that Ridge would have prevailed over Toomey in the primary? What is going on in this Pennsylvania Republican electorate? Jay Cost makes some good observations in this post, and concludes:

If the west prefers Toomey over Specter, but Ridge over Toomey – it can’t be ideology driving the results.

That may be partly true. As Reihan noted in his post, in which he argued for the strengths of Ridge as a primary candidate, “Ridge is more personable and charismatic, he has a more appealing personal story, and he’s from Erie.” It’s this last detail that may count the most. All things being equal, western Pennsylvanian Republicans seem to prefer one of their own over someone from the east, but when there were two easterners running against each other the more conservative one prevailed in the west in 2004. So it seems plausible that what we’re calling ideology here may count for something in the absence of a strong local connection. The real question is what the substance of this ideology is. I submit that it has little or nothing to do with guns, abortion or any of the traditional hot-button issues that are more associated with the conservatism of the “T.”

Candidates’ origins may explain some of the results, but they don’t explain everything, and Cost’s discussion of the role of ideology here is pretty non-specific. There are a lot of fast and loose references in Cost’s post to Obama’s bitter gun-clingers, who were by and large the western Pennsylvanian folks in the counties where he was getting absolutely annihilated all along the Ohio and West Virginia borders. Up and down the Monongahela Valley, Obama’s share of the Democratic electorate was pitifully small. None of this tells us very much about the ideological preferences of the Pennsylvanian Republican electorate.

Specter’s success in 2004 among voters in the “T” of central and northern Pennsylvania may have depended on a couple of factors Cost hasn’t considered. If we grant that these Republicans in the center of the state tend to be the more socially conservative and religious members of the primary electorate, they may have also been more likely to follow the lead of a prominent social conservative Senator when he endorses the incumbent (i.e., they did what Santorum told them to do) and they may be more inclined to back a candidate supported by a still-popular President. While we’re trafficking in stereotypes, the Starbucks latte-drinking Pittsburgh suburbanites who tended to back Toomey might not be as interested in the social conservative agenda, so they are therefore also less likely to be influenced by Santorum’s endorsement and are more likely to judge the candidates on other matters. Therefore, it is possible that ideology was a significant factor drawing western Pennsylvanians to Toomey as one relatively preferable to Specter on fiscal issues. Let’s remember who Toomey was and is, and what his major themes were and are again likely to be. According to the Wikipedia article on Toomey:

Aided by $2 million of advertising from the Club for Growth, Toomey’s campaign theme [in 2004] was that Specter was too moderate, especially on fiscal issues. Toomey frequently denounced Specter as a liberal spendthrift.

One of the problems in expecting that the “T” ought to produce a pro-Toomey result if voters are taking ideology into account is the assumption that social conservatives in the “T” are attracted to a Club for Growth-style campaign. It is just a guess, but I would wager that, like social conservatives in many other parts of the country, the social conservatives in the “T” tend to be more downscale and less reflexively opposed to economic populism and government activism. If you looked at these same districts and how they voted in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if these were centers of strength for Mike Huckabee, who was made out to be an economic populist who deviated from the true Club path on tax and spending matters. This might be why an attack against Specter primarily on fiscal issues would have fallen flat despite Specter’s social liberalism.

Cost writes:

As you can see, Specter held his own in the center of the state. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but I’d bet the spicy chicken sandwich I’m eating that he won PA-5 and PA-9, the two most conservative districts in the state. These places are mostly rural, uniformly white, low income, historically Republican – the exact kinds of places media pundits in Washington say are ruining the GOP. Yet they went for Specter in 2004.

Well, technically, media pundits aren’t saying that the places are “ruining the GOP,” but that excessive reliance on appeals geared toward such places to the apparent exclusion of others are “ruining the GOP.” No one would say that San Francisco Bay and Vermont are ruining the Democratic Party, but if the national party even appeared to be defining itself too much to satisfy people in their core areas you would hear (and undoubtedly have repeatedly heard in the past) pundits warn the Democrats against relying too heavily on their base. The more important points are not just that the “most conservative districts” voted for Specter, which raises questions about what makes them the “most conservative” and whether their views on economics and fiscal restraint are among the “most conservative” in Pennsylvania (and what we mean by conservative when we say this!), but that these districts are both low-income and historically Republican. The former will probably tend to favor the moderate Republican and the latter will probably favor the incumbent.

Cost is really making my argument for me when he goes on to say:

He [Specter] lost heavily Republican Butler county by about 20 points. Butler County is not part of what the pundits would identify as the GOP’s trouble [bold mine-DL]. It’s dominated by Cranberry Township, a far north suburb of Pittsburgh. The county as a whole grew by about 15% in the 1990s. In the last 10 years, growth has slowed to about 6%. Cranberry is dominated by younger families looking to buy a home without Allegheny County’s real estate taxes weighing them down [bold mine-DL]. There has been a big boom in development in the last 25 years, which means plenty of Starbucks around Cranberry [bold mine-DL], though it still voted for Toomey in 2004.

That final clause is unnecessary. Of course they voted for Toomey in 2004–rapidly developing suburbs filled with people looking for reduced tax burdens are perfectly suited for a Club for Growth candidate’s message. However, herein lies the difficulty for Toomey to make a statewide appeal: the north, center and east are all characterized by greater income inequality and probably somewhat less economic dynamism and upheaval, which make these regions very resistant to an anti-tax fiscal conservative. My guess is that, personality and biography aside, had Ridge run he would have found a similar pattern of support inside the GOP primary electorate that Specter did, but might have had more of a draw in the west because of personal connections to the region. However, it is probably because the GOP primary electorate has shrunk and become relatively more conservative that Ridge chose not to start a campaign. If it could be determined what parts of the state had the most party-switching former Republicans, it would probably show the greatest attrition in the regions where Specter had been, and where Ridge probably would have been, strongest. Ridge’s greater popularity in early polls over Toomey could be nothing more than high name recognition and fond memories of his time as governor when times were generally better for the respondents. At the same time, there are quite a few other reasons to doubt the viability of a moderate candidate inside the current Pennsylvania GOP.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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