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Why Didn’t Ridge Run?

I was a bit surprised by Tom Ridge’s decision today not to run for the United States Senate today, and I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider why he didn’t.

Ridge has been, in his accomplished political career, a six-term Congressman, a two-term Governor, and a Cabinet member. About the only offices left for him to run for were the Senate and the Presidency. If Ridge was going to run for the Senate, it was going to be hard to find a better opportunity than this one, with Arlen Specter taking heat from all sides and polls showing Ridge and Specter in a toss-up. Pennsylvania’s other Senator, Bob Casey, who is up for re-election in 2012, has considerably better approval/disapproval numbers than Specter and would presumably make for a much tougher target.

So Ridge, evidently, wasn’t that compelled by the Senate on its own merits. But if you scratch Senate off the list, that leaves one of two possibilities: either Ridge is interested in being on a Presidential ticket, as he nearly was in 2008, or he is fed up with politics and happy enough to stay out of them entirely.

If the latter theory holds — if Ridge is simply sick and tired of the whole business after a long career — then we have an explanation which is both necessary and sufficient to explain his decision and we do not have much more analysis to do. But if Ridge is entertaining some possibility of being on a Presidential ticket, the decision becomes more interesting. Conventional wisdom would hold, after all, that one would want to run for lower office as a springboard to higher office. Moreover, no Senate race will receive more media exposure than Pennsylvania’s in 2010 — by declining to run, Ridge is turning down potentially tens of millions of dollars worth of earned media.

The problem, however, is that little matter of the Republican primary against conservative ex-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. It’s unclear how likely Ridge would have been to defeat Toomey — a Research 2000 / Daily Kos poll put Ridge 8 points behind, whereas a somewhat dubious-looking poll by Public Opinion Strategies — commissioned by an RNC member who might have had an interest in persuading Ridge to run — put him between 31 and 37 points ahead, depending on the presence of a third candidate, Peg Luksik.

But in either event Ridge, especially given that he is pro-choice, was going to have to find some way to placate the religious right and Pennsylvania’s otherwise extremely conservative Republican primary electorate to defeat Toomey. And Ridge, as he told Michael Smerconish, evidently did not want to do that — he did not want to have to pass a conservative “litmus test”, to undergo the ideological gyrations that might be required to beat someone like Toomey. Perhaps this was simply a personal decision. But perhaps also, as Chris Cillizza suggests, Ridge thought the smarter bet was with the camp of the “establishment conservatives”, who are urging more moderation and less attention to social issues, and less so with the “movement conservatives”, who are calling for just the opposite. One also wonders whether Ridge’s decision was influenced by the experience of his friend, John McCain, who bypassed him to pick a Vice Presidential candidate who would placate the base and — after a few weeks in the sun for Sarah Palin — wound up paying the price on November 4th.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.