When winning is losing

The announcement that Pat Toomey will be running against Arlen Specter (again) in the Republican Primary election is a reminder of a stubborn problem plaguing the Republican Party.

While I'm not enamored of Specter's borderline liberalism, I find Toomey's social conservatism annoying, but it isn't the point of this post to weigh in on the merits of the two men's politics. Rather, I want to look at some numbers.

Like it or not, Pennsylvania is a state that recently went heavily for Barack Obama, and which (in 2006) turned out the socially conservative Rick Santorum:

Santorum was defeated 59% to 41% in the 2006 U.S. Senate election by Democratic candidate Bob Casey, Jr. This was the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent Senator since 1980.
Here's the breakdown in numbers:

2,392,984 58.7%


1,684,778 41.3%

While John McCain is considered a RINO by many conservatives, he did better than Rick Santorum by several percentage points:
OBAMA, BARACK (DEM) 3,276,363 54.7%


2,655,885 44.3%

In 2004 (he last time Specter ran in a general election) he defeated his Democratic opponent by a healthy 10% margin:

2,925,080 52.6%


2,334,126 42.0%


220,056 4.0%


79,263 1.4%

Interesting to see a Constitutional Party candidate receive such a high percentage.

Here are the numbers from the last primary election in which Toomey ran against Specter:

Democratic Primary

Candidate Votes Percent

595,816 100.0%

Republican Primary

Candidate Votes Percent


530,839 50.8%


513,693 49.2%

What this all means is that while Toomey might very well be able to defeat Specter in the primary, if he does the seat will in all probability go to the Democrats.

I see two lessons here for the Republicans.

One, there is of course a growing dissatisfaction within the party, especially among conservatives, to business-as-usual RINO types like Specter.

Two, this dissatisfaction does not seem to be shared by the general electorate -- and by that I mean the non-primary-voting electorate (regardless of party affiliation). If anything, there is a huge gap between the dissatisfied primary voters and ordinary voters, who apparently are not on the same wave length (and maybe not on the same page in history).

Even among Republicans who do vote in the primary, there is a fairly even split. Whether this reflects a split between "conservatives" and "RINOs" or between conservatives and pragmatists who want their party to win, I am not sure.

I do think it's a bit unreasonable to label all pragmatists RINOs, though. At some point (perhaps that point has been reached right now), Republicans may face a debate over whether winning is more important than ideology. But I think it would be a mistake to conclude that pragmatists who want to win are unprincipled people devoid of ideology. I'm a libertarian, for example, and I'm quite used to the fact that libertarianism is not the triumphant ideology in the GOP, and it may never be. So, I long ago concluded that beating the Democrats is preferable to sitting out elections (or being a Ron Paul/Bob Barr type spoiler). That makes me a pragmatist, but not someone devoid of ideology.

Naturally, it is being pointed out (especially by Specter) that Toomey is to the right of Santorum, an incumbent who lost his seat. That Santorum lost his seat while Specter won overwhelmingly illustrates the dual nature of the problem the Republican Party faces. The side that wins is not considered Republican by the side that loses. Each side is increasingly out of touch with the other.

I realize that a growing number of people believe that being ideologically right is preferable to winning, and I can't help wondering what they'd be saying if, say, the economy not tanked just in time for the election and McCain had won. It's easy to dismiss McCain now as bereft of ideology, and attribute his defeat to that, but if they get one of their own on the ballot in 2012, and he loses, what will happen? Will the Republicans go into "Long March" mode, and content themselves with being the party that cannot win? That happened in California for years, until Schwarzenegger came along, and he's made many California Republicans yearn for the good old days of losing.

I understand the idea that winning isn't everything, and that winning can be a form of losing if you lose your principles in order to win. It's just that I've had to leave my libertarian principles outside the voting booth in nearly every election. I've long been accustomed to seeing libertarian principles as a luxury to be subordinated to winning.

And, unprincipled though it may sound, I'd vote for McCain over Obama again.

posted by Eric on 04.16.09 at 06:13 PM


I guess I am a RINO too. I believe that I am a Republican, and I will never ever vote Dem again. I did when I was younger, I voted for who I thought was the best canidate. I do not agree with several policies of the right Republicans (guess that could be a pun). But I will support the party. I would have a hard time voting for someone that held the far right views. Tough choices.

LYNNDH   ·  April 16, 2009 6:31 PM

So thr plan is to run a Dem from the Dems to vote for, and a Dem-posing-as-a-Repub for the Repubs to vote for, guaranteeing the continuation of big-government, kill the babies, spend us out of debt government folks.

Seems like it would be more honest to just run the same candidate on both slates--and save a tone of money in the process.

Larry Sheldon   ·  April 16, 2009 7:33 PM


It is not the candidates. It is the electorate.

We do in fact get the government we deserve.

M. Simon   ·  April 16, 2009 7:52 PM

The great middle range of voters, especially disinterested voters who don't follow issues, vote based on name recognition.

Since most of them have rather limited knowledge of the down ticket candidates, they follow a heuristic of voting for the candidate whose name they remember.

That's why so much money is spent on advertising that has next to zero content other than the name of the candidate.

The solution is to make it more difficult for voters to register and actually cast their ballots. Raise the bar and fewer of the inadequately informed will bother.

This process helps to explain the low turnover rate in elected offices.

Whitehall   ·  April 16, 2009 8:04 PM

You have many good points. Specter would not have held on for this long if he were a political troglodyte. I think he understands what's enabled him to win elections.

But I also think the Pennsylvania GOP needs to reinvent itself, and it's going to be tough to do that with Specter in the Senate slot. It's not really because I think Specter is a RINO. I think such labels are generally unproductive. It's more that I think Specter plays the middle poorly. He's stabbed just about every part of the Republican coalition in the back at one time or another, most lately with his vote in favor of the Stimulus.

The problem with Arlen Specter isn't that he's a mixed bag, he's a jumbled bag. You can never be sure when he's going to support your interest, and when he's going to stab you in the back. His way of playing the middle seems to be to be a lukewarm supporter of nearly everything.

I'm tired of it. I'd rather deal with a far left Democrat at this point. At least that gives me something to organize against as opposition. Arlen has survived so long by not pissing anyone off quite enough.

Compared to other Pennsylvania Republicans, none of whom could be called real dyed in the wool conservatives, like Tom Ridge, John Heinz, or Dick Thornburg, Specter has always managed to particularly annoy me. And I'm one willing to tolerate moderates.

I may yet vote for Specter in 2010. I've sworn off voting for Specter every term he's served since I started voting. But at this point, I'd tired of him. I might as well have a Democrat. If the best I can hope for, as a Republican leaning Independent, is Arlen Specter, then I should probably reconsider my future as a Pennsylvanian. I'm willing to accept moderate, but not one where I have to constantly worry about a knife getting stuck in my back on just about any issue you can imagine.

Sebastian   ·  April 18, 2009 12:57 AM

I believe Santorum lost because the Southeast Republicans who were Toomey supporters sat out that election - because Santorum had endorsed Specter over Toomey in the election prior to that?

Susan Lee

Susan Lee   ·  April 18, 2009 5:25 PM

I agree with LYNNDH. Someone like Toomey may very well lose to a Dem but Specter goes beyond a moderate Repub. What defines one as "moderate"? Going conservative on fiscal issues but more liberal on social issues? How about being "reasonable" on both sides? Specter is neither. His adamant support of the stimulus puts him outside any definition of moderate I can think of. Plus, he is most responsible for making the stimulus possible, as he was the driver behind the three Rs that voted for it.

Additionally, he had every intention of going all in on card check until he realized how much trouble he was in.

I'd rather nominate Toomey and let the cards fall where they may than let this fraud serve another term in my state.

/PA voter

Doug   ·  April 21, 2009 11:16 AM

Sorry I meant I agree with Larry.

Doug   ·  April 21, 2009 11:19 AM

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