Ridge out; field clear for Toomey?

A bit of a minor bombshell hit today in the ongoing Pennsylvania Senate saga that started when Pat Toomey decided to run against Arlen Specter in next year’s primary.  Some thought that Toomey’s staunch conservatism might push the GOP to look for a more centrist candidate to compete against the former Congressman and chair of Club for Growth, and speculation swirled that former Governor Tom Ridge might be the man.  Ridge took himself out of the running today, however:

Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Pennsylvania, issued the following statement today on his decision not to seek the Republican nomination for Senate in his home state of Pennsylvania.

“After careful consideration and many conversations with friends and family and the leadership of my party, I have decided not to seek the Republican nomination for Senate.

“I am enormously grateful for the confidence my party expressed in me, the encouragement and kindness of my fellow citizens in Pennsylvania and the valuable counsel I received from so many of my party colleagues. The 2010 race has significant implications for my party, and that required thoughtful reflection. All of the above made my decision a difficult and deeply personal conclusion to reach. However, this process also impressed upon me how fortunate I am to have so many friends who volunteered to support my journey if I chose to take it and continue to offer their support after I conveyed to them this morning how I believe I can best serve my commonwealth, my party and my country.[“]

According to some, with Ridge goes the GOP’s hope of wresting the seat back from Specter and his new colleagues in the Democratic Party.  Pennsylvania hasn’t been kind to conservatives, and some point to Rick Santorum’s loss to Robert Casey, Jr. in 2006 as evidence that a conservative can’t win in the Keystone State.  That’s what prompted the GOP to start looking for primary challengers to Toomey rather than start building support for him in a general election.  Now, they don’t have anyone of sufficient stature to push into the primary.

I think the GOP panic misses the mark.  I like Rick Santorum, but he’s a different kind of conservative.  Santorum’s social conservatism might not have played well in 2006, but he also faced some strong national headwinds in an election that was not kind to Republicans anywhere.  He only had one term in office, which didn’t establish him in voters’ minds as an indispensable man.

Toomey is most well-known for fiscal conservatism, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  In 2010, that’s going to play much more attractively than Santorum did in 2006.  After two years of massive government spending, followed by a cap-and-trade effort that will crush Pennsylvania’s coal, energy, and manufacturing sectors, voters will be looking for checks on Obama’s policies.  They won’t get that from Specter, who won’t be a trustworthy figure anyway, or Joe Sestak, who will be more or less Obama’s rubber stamp.  If Toomey focuses on nothing but economics and energy policy in the 2010 race, he has an excellent chance to capture the trust of Pennsylvanians looking for a change from all of Obama’s change.

And that won’t be a bad lesson for the GOP nationwide, either.