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By Jay Cost

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Ridge Could Be Trouble for Specter

Quinnipiac released a poll yesterday showing Tom Ridge running just a few points behind Arlen Specter in a hypothetical match-up. Importantly, the results also showed Specter below 50%. Today, Chris Cillizza reports that Ridge is interested in running (h/t Tom Bevan):

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge (R) is seriously considering a 2010 bid for the Senate seat held by Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter and will make his decision in the next two weeks, according to several sources familiar with his thinking.

Ridge is perhaps the state's most decorated Republican, having held a House seat for more than a decade, spent eight years as governor and served as the first secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush. He was also mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.

Don't expect Toomey to back down if Ridge joins the fray. Of course, Ridge is no stranger to contested primaries. In 1994 - he defeated Attorney General Ernie Preate and soon-to-be Attorney General Mike Fisher in the Pennsylvania primary. Ridge is an interesting combination of political qualities. He's Catholic, which is a big asset in Pennsylvania politics. White Catholics made up 20% of the nationwide electorate in 2008, but 30% in Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly then, Pennsylvania is one of the more pro-life blue states in the country. Yet Ridge is actually pro-choice, and while in Congress he racked up a fairly moderate ideological score of 0.189, compared to Toomey's 0.694 and Specter's 0.06 (where 1.0 is a perfectly conservative record).

Ridge would be a highly formidable general election candidate. Last week, I argued that Specter's electoral problem is not so much his moderation, but his lack of support from Western Pennsylvania. Ridge - whose old congressional district (PA 03) stretches from the far north exurbs of Pittsburgh up along the PA-OH border to Erie - could exploit this. When Ridge ran in the 1994 general, he performed poorest in the southwest, but this was due in part to the fact that his general election opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, is from Johnstown (John Murtha's hometown). Ridge swept metro Pittsburgh when he ran for reelection in 1998 - and a white Catholic with a working class background such as Ridge could create huge trouble for Specter in the west. He might also give him heartburn in the northeast. Apropos, the Quinnipiac poll has Ridge running well ahead of Specter in the southwest (outside Allegheny County), drawing even with him in the northeast, and running more than 2:1 ahead in Erie.

Could Ridge defeat Toomey in the primary? He'd certainly be formidable. Ridge defeated the more conservative Mike Fisher back in 1994 - and the fact that he is from the west, while Toomey is from the east, should give the former governor a boost in a state where the GOP electorate has become more western. He's pro-choice, of course, so that could be a problem - though it appears that Toomey was pro-choice at one point, too. Additionally, Ridge has war on terror credentials, having served as President Bush's first Secretary of Homeland Security. That is bound to be appealing to Pennsylvania conservatives.

Bottom line: Specter is weak, and Ridge's interest is an indication that other politicians perceive this weakness. From a purely self-interested perspective, Specter's switch from the Republican to the Democratic parties increased his chance of winning reelection - however, this does not mean he's a lock. I would have pegged his chances of reelection around maybe 20% before he made the jump. It's higher than that now, but with Ridge and Sestak thinking about jumping in, I wouldn't give him any better than even odds. Additionally, as I noted last week, Specter's jump so early in the cycle was another sign of weakness - and it has given prospective opponents time to decide whether they should challenge him. He may have had no choice but to switch so soon - but that is a sign of just how much trouble Arlen Specter was in.

-Jay Cost