Conservatives still hold ‘anger’ over Santorum backing of Specter

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When Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania endorsed moderate Arlen Specter over conservative Pat Toomey in the state’s GOP Senate primary in 2004, the head of the conservative Club for Growth predicted “our members won’t forget that for a very long time.”

Eight years later, as Mr. Santorum seeks the Republican nomination for president, he is still trying to explain his endorsement of Mr. Specter to conservatives who remember it as a stunning betrayal that influenced the Senate’s battle lines for the next six years.

“I know it did upset many conservatives,” said Peg Luksik of Johnstown, Pa., who has run for governor and for the U.S. Senate as a pro-life candidate on the Constitution Party ticket. “He inserted himself into a Republican primary, and many people expressed their anger to me.”

Mr. Specter, a big-spending, pro-choice incumbent Republican at the time, defeated Mr. Toomey in one of state’s closest elections ever, 50.82 percent to 49.18 percent. He won the primary by only 17,000 votes out of more than one million cast. And many conservatives believe the difference was Mr. Santorum, who told voters that nominating Mr. Toomey would result in Democrats winning the Senate seat in the general election. At the time, Republicans held a slim 51 to 49 majority.

“If he had just stayed out of it,” said Don Adams, president of the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC in the Philadelphia region. “I definitely think it made the difference. It was so close.”

Mr. Santorum filmed a TV ad for Mr. Specter that year in which he said, “I heard people say that they think Arlen Specter’s liberal. … Arlen is with us on the votes that matter.”

Mr. Specter’s victory in 2004 would have an impact on the future balance of power in the Senate. In 2009, Mr. Specter was one of only three Republicans to vote for President Obama’s $821 billion stimulus plan. The resulting anger directed at Mr. Specter prompted him to switch parties in April 2009, providing Senate Democrats with a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes after Al Franken was confirmed as the winner of a tight Senate race in Minnesota.

In 2010, however, Pennsylvania Democrats rejected Mr. Specter’s bid for re-election in their primary, instead nominating Rep. Joe Sestak of Media, Pa. In the fall, Mr. Toomey finally captured the Senate seat that had been held by Mr. Specter.

As Mr. Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney head into critical primaries Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, Mr. Romney is hammering his opponent over the 2004 endorsement of Mr. Specter, using it as one example that Mr. Santorum isn’t a true conservative.

Mr. Santorum has said he endorsed Mr. Specter, who was in line to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, after they had a conversation in which Mr. Specter promised to confirm the judicial nominees of Republican President George W. Bush.

“I got a commitment from Arlen Specter that no matter who George W. Bush would nominate, he would support that nominee,” Mr. Santorum said in 2010. He has repeated variations of that “conversation” with Mr. Specter in the past week.

Mr. Specter has all but called Mr. Santorum a liar.

“That is flatly not true,” he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Friday. “We never had any such conversation.” Mr. Specter said it would have been improper for him to give such assurances about judicial nominees.

Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator, Mr. Specter also harshly criticized Mr. Santorum’s qualifications for president.

“Where you have Sen. Santorum’s views, so far to the right, with his attitude on women in the workplace and gays and the bestiality comments and birth control, I do not think it is realistic for Rick Santorum to represent America,” Mr. Specter said. The comment about bestiality referred to a 2003 interview in which Mr. Santorum mentioned “man on dog” sex during a discussion of sodomy laws and homosexuality.

Mr. Adams said he doesn’t buy Mr. Santorum’s explanation about getting a commitment from Mr. Specter on judicial nominations, because Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a conservative, was next in line in seniority to get the chairmanship if Mr. Specter did not. He noted that Mr. Santorum also endorsed Mr. Specter’s long-shot bid for president in 1996.

“I just think Rick’s allegiance to Arlen Specter seemed to have trumped all other allegiances, even pro-life,” said Mr. Adams, whose tea party group has endorsed Mr. Romney.

Some conservatives say the episode also contributed to Mr. Santorum’s loss in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey. It was a Democratic year, but they say conservatives’ enthusiasm for Mr. Santorum had eroded.

“I do think it hurt him,” said Mr. Adams. “People by that point couldn’t stomach it any longer.”

In the 2004 primary, conservatives were further angered by Mr. Santorum’s “nastiness” toward Mr. Toomey, said Ryan Shafik of Harrisburg, Pa., a political strategist who once worked as an intern for Mr. Santorum and later worked on Mr. Toomey’s campaigns.

“He went to an extra level to really hurt Pat,” Mr. Shafik said. “That’s what really angered activists.”

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