Pennsylvania battle looms

Arlen Specter on the campaign trail. (Specter Campaign)

Arlen Specter on the campaign trail. (Specter Campaign)

WASHINGTON, April 28 (JTA) — Arlen Specter squeaked out victory in a bitter Pennsylvania primary, but his fight to remain the senior Jewish Republican in the U.S. Senate is hardly over. A key question facing him is whether he can maintain his traditionally strong Jewish support against a formidable challenge from a Democratic congressman. Specter, who has represented Pennsylvania in the Senate since 1981, narrowly defeated Rep. Pat Toomey in the Republican primary Tuesday, securing 51 percent of the vote. Toomey, funded in large part by conservative organizations, challenged Specter’s record as a moderate Republican in a race that was viewed by some as a battle for the core beliefs of the Republican Party. Specter received significant support from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Santorum, like Toomey, is a bedrock conservative, and Bush is to the right of Specter on many issues. Still, the party establishment sees Specter as more able to help Bush win Pennsylvania in November. Pennsylvania is likely to be closely fought, and the state’s Jewish community could prove crucial in swinging the state. Jews make up 2.3 percent of Pennsylvania voters, according to the 2001 American Jewish Yearbook. Jews tend to vote in larger numbers than others and contribute heavily to campaigns’ financial coffers. Specter’s support for abortion rights and other domestic policy priorities of the Jewish community traditionally has won him crossover votes from Jewish Democrats and independents. But in Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.), Specter faces a pro-Israel lawmaker with a voting record and reputation likely to gain him traction in Jewish circles. The race has implications beyond who represents Pennsylvania. Republicans are fighting to maintain their slim 51-49 majority in the Senate; and the Pennsylvania contest also could affect the presidential race, since voters drawn to the booths for a particular senate candidate are considered likely to favor that party’s candidate for president as well. Norm Ornstein, a top analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, believes Specter has the advantage in the Jewish community. “I don’t have a reason to believe that Jewish voters will behave any different than in other Specter contests,” Ornstein said. “He will do pretty well, despite the fact that they are mostly Democrats.” Specter’s primary battle, which helped paint him as a moderate, might help him win crossover support, supporters in the Jewish community say. “In the primary, Specter did nothing but reinforce himself as someone who can travel easily in all types of circles,” said Ken Davis, a Republican lobbyist in Philadelphia. Specter’s seniority — he is in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Republicans maintain their Senate majority — and his ability to bring money back home to Pennsylvania also make him appealing to state voters. Specter backers suggest that Jewish support for the Bush administration’s stance on Israel and the war on terrorism may make Jewish voters more inclined to back Republicans across the board. Democrats say Hoeffel, a member of the Middle East panel of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, has strong pro-Israel credentials, and they believe his domestic policy positions will win Jewish support. “Joe has a long, public history of being there on issues that are of interest to a lot of Jews,” said Marcel Green, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee. Green said the Pennsylvania race may be key in determining whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate, and that even if Jewish voters like Specter, they may back Hoeffel to help tip the scales of power nationally. “Sen. Specter certainly has had strength within the Jewish community, but he’s never run against a Joe Hoeffel before,” Green said. Specter defeated Lynn Yeakel by only two percentage points in 1992, when he was known nationally for his strong questioning of Anita Hill, who testified against Clarence Thomas in his Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. Yeakel had never sought political office before, and was criticized for serving on the board of a Presbyterian Church that, according to some Jews, had been a platform for anti-Israel statements. Hoeffel has faced off against a Jewish Republican before, defeating incumbent Rep. Jon Fox in 1998 after losing to him by less than 100 votes in 1996. Democrats estimate that Hoeffel received more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in that race. But this is a statewide race, and Republicans note that Hoeffel is not well known outside of his Philadelphia-area district, where he formerly served as Montgomery County Commissioner. Pennsylvania is considered a state to watch in the November presidential elections, and strong support for Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, could carry over to support for Hoeffel as well. The seat Hoeffel is vacating in the House could be taken by a Jewish Democrat. Allyson Schwartz, a state senator, won a Democratic primary Tuesday to seek Hoeffel’s seat in Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district. She will run against Melissa Brown, a doctor who lost a close race against Hoeffel in 2002.

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