Stimulus package may impact primary races before economy

The stimulus package could have an impact on key Senate races across the country before it has much of an impact on the economy.

The $800 billion package looms large over what is shaping up to be a huge 2010 election cycle, and the issue is set to creep into key GOP Senate primaries featuring stimulus supporters Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

The package gets a trial run in New York on Tuesday, in the special election to fill Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Suburban moms are going to decide the 2020 election MORE’s (D-N.Y.) former House seat, and concerned candidates across the country will be eyeing the result.

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The Republican in the special election, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, wavered for weeks before coming out against the stimulus package. But prospective senators from Connecticut to Missouri to Florida have already placed their bets on it, with little prompting.

Most of them have come down along party lines, following a congressional showdown that saw seven Democrats opposing the package and only three Republicans supporting it. Even centrist former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) has come out against the package in a dark blue state where it enjoys nearly three-fifths support — a number that tracks closely with its nationwide popularity.

But Quinnipiac University Polling Institute Assistant Director Peter Brown said present-day support isn’t a great indicator for a general election 19 months away.

“In terms of the 2010 election, what matters is not what people think now; what matters is whether these programs work or not, in the eyes of the American people,” Brown said.

Specter was one of those three GOPers to support the stimulus package, and it has earned him a rematch with former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who lost to Specter by less than two points in the 2004 Republican primary.

And in Florida, there is new talk that Crist, if he runs for Senate, might face a primary spurred on by his support for the stimulus package.

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Factions within the state GOP have ratcheted up their grumbling against the governor’s centrist ways. Many observers expect him to enter the Senate race when the current legislative session is over, but he might not have as clear a path as once thought. Much of that has to do with the stimulus, say his opponents.

“We need every Republican conservative that can back us up,” said former Pinellas County GOP Chairman Tony DiMatteo, citing the importance of keeping the GOP at 41 seats in the Senate. “That’s our last defense against liberalism.”

Potential primary opponents include state House Speaker Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP online donor platform offering supporters 'Notorious A.C.B.' shirts Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power MORE, who has an exploratory committee, and another former Speaker, Allan Bense.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” DiMatteo said. “People are not happy.”

The polls seem to back up that assertion. Quinnipiac, which showed support for the stimulus at 58 percent in Connecticut, pegs the opposition at 70 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans and 66 percent of Florida Republicans.

After drawing much attention for his crucial stimulus vote, Specter saw his favorability among Republicans sliced in half, to less than 30 percent. Toomey labeled Specter an “apostate” and cited the vote as the turning point in his decision to reconsider the Senate race.

Specter has acknowledged those numbers in reflecting on a vote that could cost him a 30-year Senate career.

“Sometimes it might be too high a price to be able to stay here,” he said in an interview with The Hill earlier this month. “When I voted on the stimulus package, I was well aware of the political peril.”

The dynamics are a little clearer for the general election, where nearly every key Republican is opposing the stimulus and nearly every key Democrat is supporting it.

In Connecticut, the issue has flared over the last two weeks after Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) bumbling explanation of a provision in the package that allowed AIG executives to collect large bonuses.

But a month before that blow-up, and before he entered the Senate race, Simmons spoke out against the stimulus. He told The Hill on Monday that it is “very unlikely” he would have voted for the bill, but reserved judgment because he is not “plugged into” the people and staff who crafted the bill.

“I’m very skeptical about voting for bills I don’t have time to read,” he said. “And secondly, I’m not convinced that the massive transfer of money from private to public is the best way to stimulate the economy.”

In Ohio, former Rep. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Romney undecided on authorizing subpoenas for GOP Obama-era probes Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery MORE (R) has heaped criticism on the stimulus, while two leading Democrats — Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher — have been supportive.

Brunner was highly critical of outgoing Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) for opposing the bill. She noted that his Ohio colleague, Democratic Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownMnuchin says he and Pelosi have agreed to restart coronavirus stimulus talks Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle Remote work poses state tax challenges MORE, had to leave his mother’s funeral in a taxpayer-funded plane in order for Democrats to have enough votes.

The situation is similar in Missouri, where the presumptive Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, has come out in support and Rep. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators confident Trump pick to be confirmed by November Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election SCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly MORE (R-Mo.) voted against it.

Races featuring House members like Blunt have likewise put candidates on the record. Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) are both running for Senate and both voted for the stimulus, while prospective Illinois Senate candidates Reps. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' MORE (R) and Peter Roskam (R) voted against it.

Some Democrats, though, have yet to weigh in.

Brown, of Quinnipiac, suggested it wouldn’t be surprising to see Democrats waffle on the issue going forward.

“Republicans have to be against it,” Brown said. “The interesting question is how much Democrats who are challenging incumbent Republicans will wade into this and take a position, because they’re really not forced to.”