After decades of Republicans accusing Arlen Specter of being a Republican in Name Only, he obliged by casting off the Republican name. In an official statement today, Specter announced he was switching parties in order to seek re-election as a Democrat.
Of course, there has been some vitriol against the Pennsylvanian on Twitter and on various conservative blogs – but according to recent polls, this move is as much about the party leaving Specter as it is about Specter leaving the party. Staring down a primary rematch with 2004 challenger (and near winner) Pat Toomey, Specter also had to face the reality that many moderate Republicans had switched their registration since then to participate in the Obama/Clinton presidential primary in 2008. The remaining Republican voters were more conservative and likely to react to Specter’s support for some of the Obama Administrations fiscal policies.
Simply put, had Specter remained a Republican, he would not have remained a Senator. For that reason alone, he’s a winner in this deal – and more so if there were any payoffs from his now-fellow-Democrats to jump on board. And if he does have to face off against Toomey, it will be against a full electorate, rather than a conservative base.
Specter does have a key vulnerability: his 2004 primary victory came with some help from then-Senator Rick Santorum (who lost in 2006) and President George W. Bush. Video from those campaign rallies may make it easy for Democratic primary opponents, and could also make it easier for Pat Toomey to separate himself from the Bush Republican Party brand.
To that end, Toomey will be a winner if he doesn’t draw a moderate primary challenger. His campaign can now focus on his economic bona fides and take on a more broad, moderate tone early on – rather than playing to the conservative base in order to win a primary. It also allows him to seal up establishment Republican support early on, rather than trying to mend fences after a bruising primary.
In the short term, the Democrats win as well, both nationally and in Pennsylvania. The Democratic race for the Senate was wide open after TV’s Chris Matthews bowed out; now they have a strong candidate. The 60-seat majority in the Senate is obviously the biggest win for the Democrats. The Obama Administration had suggested using fast-track Senate rules for some controversial initiatives (like socializing health care) to get around a Republican filibuster. Now, the adminsitration will be able to contiue paying lip service to an open legislative process.
But oddly enough, the Democrats also have the most to lose from Specter’s switch. Having attained 60 seats, a loss of even a couple in the next election is magnified. And though Toomey was probably toast against any reasonable Democratic challenger, his chances are arguably better – with a unified Pennsyvania GOP in his corner – against a Democrat who has spent the last 40 years on the other side of the people he is now depending on. After all, are Pennsylvania Democrats going to be excited about Arlen Specter? Or will they view this as a race between two Republicans?
And of course, if Specter wins, the Democrats may still find themselves the big losers; then they’d be stuck with Arlen Specter.