Why did Santorum endorse Specter in 2004?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

One question that has surging candidate Rick Santorum squirming is why he backed incumbent Senator Arlen Specter against his Republican primary challenger, then-Congressman Pat Toomey, in 2004. Toomey was clearly the more conservative candidate, and he lost by only 51%-49%, so anything working in Specter’s favor—including Santorum’s endorsement—can reasonably be said to have made the difference.

Santorum says he is proud of backing Specter because in 2005 and 2006 Specter, as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, shepherded the confirmations of Judge John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. That’s a fair enough defense, and Specter in fact did a fine job on those hearings. Remember how he interjected, “Senator Kennedy, let the judge answer the question.” When Arlen Specter is on your side, he can be very effective.

But I think there’s another answer Santorum could give, but doesn’t want to. In 1994, when two-term Congressman Rick Santorum was running against incumbent (chosen in a 1991 special election) Democratic Senator Harris Wofford, his campaign was in the doldrums, even in a heavily Republican year. Wofford was an attractive candidate, with a long history going back to his work as liaison between John Kennedy’s campaign and the civil rights movement, and his early advocacy of what became the Peace Corps. He was and is a very nice man, and when it came to the point that his campaign had need of the services of people who weren’t necessarily very nice he had the very effective team of James Carville, Paul Begala and Bob Shrum.

Santorum was in trouble, and Arlen Specter came to his rescue. I remember visiting the Santorum headquarters in Philadelphia that fall, where it was apparent that Specter operatives had taken over the campaign and were running it very effectively indeed. Santorum won 49%-47%--better, he can point out, than any Republican presidential candidate has done in Pennsylvania since 1988, but a nail biter nonetheless. Specter knew that Santorum would be a much more conservative senator than he was, and he surely knew that senators from the same state and of the same party often have difficult and sometimes poisonous relationships. Wofford was a guy he could live with. Nonetheless he pitched in and went all out for Santorum.

In those circumstances, it would have been gross ingratitude for Santorum to have endorsed Toomey in 2004. He owed Arlen Specter. And of course he knew that if Specter was renominated and (what in that case was inevitable) reelected after Santorum endorsed Toomey, Santorum would have had no end of trouble from his never forgetful senior colleague. Santorum may have agonized somewhat over endorsing Specter, but in the end it was a no brainer for a man who at that time had reason to think that he had many decades ahead of him as a senator from Pennsylvania and that he owed that in very large part to Arlen Specter.

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