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Specter's Jewish Backers Pull Out All the Stops

April 16, 2009 By:
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Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter at a pro-Israel rally in January in Center City

With U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) trailing his erstwhile GOP primary opponent Pat Toomey in several recent polls and seemingly facing a difficult path to re-election in 2010, a number of longtime Jewish backers are vowing to stand by their man.

They are actively raising funds for Specter, whom they hail as a stalwart supporter of Israel and one of the Senate's most influential members.

But perhaps as important as finding money -- Specter has already accumulated more than $7 million in his campaign war chest -- supporters are trying to persuade Democrats to switch their party registration to vote in the Republican primary. They are targeting mostly moderate suburbanites, including former Republicans who may have grown disenchanted with the GOP during the Bush years, and so switched parties to vote in the Democratic primary in the 2008 presidential contest.

"I'm certainly going to do it, and I'm imploring my friends to do it," said Joseph Smukler.

The Center City attorney and former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is one of scores of traditional Democrats who has departed from his usual party to support Specter over the years. He was a major supporter of Democrat Bob Casey's Senate candidacy in 2006.

The Pennsylvania Senate race is being watched closely across the nation, and is shaping up to be another tough battle for Specter, the five-term senator and cancer survivor who turns 80 next year.

One of only two Jewish Republicans in the Senate -- the defeat of the other, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, is still being contested -- Specter wields considerable influence as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Known as one of a handful of moderate Republicans left in the Senate, Specter is also seen as a swing vote, as he was when he voted for the $800 billion federal stimulus package in February, stirring anger among many of his Republican colleagues -- and conservative Pennsylvanians.

While the primary appears to be the more daunting challenge, if he wins, he could also face a difficult fight against a Democratic opponent in the general election. So far, only one Democrat has entered the race -- Joe Torsella, former president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.

Other potential Democratic candidates include U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (District 8), U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (District 7), U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (District 13) and State Rep. Josh Shapiro (District 153).

'His Bipartisan Thinking'
Specter has long sought -- and gotten -- backing from the Jewish community, even among traditional Democrats. Smukler noted that about half of the 40 or so co-chairs for an April 13 Center City fundraiser, featuring former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, were Jewish.

Smukler said that the senator has long supported aid to Israel, and in recent years co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and helped craft the High-Risk Non-Profit Security Enhancement Act, which has distributed more than $80 million in federal funds to institutions, including synagogues and Jewish community centers, for security.

"Specter has the support of many people in the Jewish community because of his independence and his bipartisan thinking," said Ronald Rubin, a trustee of a prominent real estate development firm, who is also helping to raise money for what is expected to be an expensive primary.

Smukler and Rubin were among a number of influential Jewish supporters, including attorney Steven L. Friedman and developer Gary Erlbaum, who had organized a fundraiser in February.

However, getting people to switch parties might be a little tougher than getting them to give cash.

Jeff Jubelirer, a Center City-based political analyst and consultant, said it would be particularly difficult in a year when there's a gubernatorial election. Because of Pennsylvania's closed-primary system, switching would mean voters wouldn't be able to vote in a Democratic primary.

"I think it's going to be awfully hard, but, of course, it will be part of the strategy," he said.

Though Toomey has not officially entered the race, Specter's vote for the stimulus package apparently convinced the former three-term congressman from the Lehigh Valley to abandon gubernatorial ambitions to have another go against Specter.

In 2004, Specter edged out Toomey by 17,000 votes, or less than 2 percent of the total. This time, neither former President George W. Bush nor former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum are in office to campaign for Specter, as they did last time around.

A key question is whether Specter or Toomey, who until this week headed the Washington-based Club for Growth, a national organization that promotes free-market economics, would be more likely to win against a Democratic candidate. Some Pennsylvanians argue that only a candidate with Specter's stature and moderation can hold on to the Senate seat for the GOP.

But among Republicans, Toomey appears to be in the lead. A March 25 Quinnipiac University poll showed him leading Specter among registered Republicans by 41 percent to 27 percent.

Conservative activist Peg Luksik is also seeking the nomination.

Specter is clearly expecting a dogfight. He's already gone on the attack, charging that Toomey supported the deregulation policies that helped bring down the economy.

Sam Katz, a two-time Republican candidate for Philadelphia mayor, said that pundits are wrong to declare Specter the underdog: "Arlen Specter has been counted dead on more occasions than anybody I know that is still around in politics."

He added that the political landscape in 2010 will depend on how successful President Barack Obama is at pumping life back into the economy.

"If Obama is hugely successful, then the moderate Republican may become extinct," said Katz. If not, independents and moderates might return to the GOP fold and cast a ballot for Specter, he said.

While Toomey, a fiscal and social conservative, probably can't expect a groundswell of Jewish support, he does have influential Jewish backers making the case that when it comes to Israel, Toomey would be as good, if not better, than the incumbent.

Conservative activist Robert Guzzardi and local Republican fundraiser Judy Davidson have criticized Specter's many visits to Syria, though they acknowledge he is solidly pro-Israel. They save their harsher criticism for his position on domestic issues, such as backing the stimulus package.

Guzzardi said that many people are loyal to Specter largely for practical reasons -- because he wins elections and is effective at securing federal dollars for local projects, while Toomey backers are drawn to an ideology.

But for Guzzardi and other Toomey enthusiasts, whether their candidate can win statewide is not the point. Guzzardi, a former board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, said that even if he knew for sure that Toomey would lose in 2010, he's "100 percent" behind him because "I want to advance an agenda of ideas and policy. My idea is to get rid of Specter, then we'll go on to step two." 

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