Arlen Specter's gritty, to-the-wire victory in this week's Pennsylvania primary leaves Republicans likelier to keep control of a closely divided US Senate but sent a powerful warning shock to embattled party moderates.
Despite a strong endorsement from President Bush and most of the state party establishment, the four-term incumbent had to draw down his campaign war chest by some $10 million to beat back a primary challenge from US Rep. Pat Toomey. Outside groups such as the antitax Club for Growth had poured more than $1 million into the fiercely contested race, hoping to replace a moderate senator with a staunchly conservative one.
The margin was tight, and even with the incumbent's victory, it signals that Republicans could have to fight to retain the seat this fall. Still, analyst's see Specter's prospects as brighter than Toomey's would have been - possibly keeping this key swing state in reach for President Bush in his fall race to retain the White House.
Perhaps the race's largest message is about the party's internal rift.
"This narrow victory for Specter proves again that the moderate wing of the GOP is dying, even in the Northeast," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "It's very comparable to the death of the conservative wing of the Democratic party in the South and Rocky Mountain states. Democrats are liberals almost everywhere, and Republicans are conservatives almost everywhere. And that will be even more true in 10 years than it is today."
Republicans on both sides of the GOP rift say it will take some effort to get back on a war footing for the fall campaign after the bruising in this race, which drew nationwide attention.
The Toomey campaign tarred Specter as a liberal on issues such as abortion and tax cuts.
"To be able to unite after a vicious campaign like that will not be easy," says Don Hart, a Republican activist in Pittsburgh. "Some conservatives are saying they'd rather vote for [Democratic Rep. Joe] Hoeffel than to vote for Specter, although those emotions may settle down by the general election."
In the final hours of this race, the endorsement of the White House played heavily in the minds of Republican voters, say independent pollsters. "The national side of this race is clear: President Bush's endorsement and his visit helped turn the tide," says G. Terry Madonna of the Keystone poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster County.
GOP moderates say that the rumors of their demise within the Republican Party are premature. Moderates picked up the GOP nominations for the seats vacated by both Toomey and Hoeffel, notes Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, a spokeswoman for the MainStreet Individual Fund, a group supporting GOP moderates that put some $200,000 into advertising for Specter.
But Democrats say that the close victory - and low turnout among Republicans - signals they have a chance for a pickup in November. "Specter demonstrated tonight just how narrow his base within the Republican Party is and why he is extremely vulnerable," says the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Despite the highly charged election, only 12.7 percent of eligible voters turned out.
Redistricting is creating increasingly polarized districts in the House, and Specter's scare shows how tough it is for even longtime incumbents in the Senate. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a leading GOP moderate, says her obligation is to represent her "very moderate" constituents, regardless of threats from groups like the Club for Growth. "But it's very disturbing to see that an outside group would risk a solid Republican seat [in Pennsylvania] and control for the Senate for such narrow objectives," she adds.
The challenge to the strength of moderates is also mounting for Democrats. Retiring moderates include Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia, John Breaux of Louisiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, and Bob Graham of Florida.