Sen. Arlen Specter finds himself in the same spot he was six years ago. He’s a long-term incumbent Senator, locked in a tight primary with a candidate favored by his party’s grassroots, and he’s hoping that support from a President whose approval ratings have dropped precipitously will give him enough credibility with the base to drag him over the finish line.
But there’s a big difference between Specter’s 2010 fortunes and the landscape in 2004 – and no, it’s not the letter next to his name, or that Garry Shandling seemed to spoof the senior Senator from Pennsylvania in Iron Man 2.
In 2004, when Specter squeaked past Pat Toomey in the Republican primary, there were many Republicans who held their noses and voted for him anyway in the general election. There were also many grassroots activists who deliberately voted against Specter or stayed home. That was in a year with a Presidential election race, when the GOTV machine that was the Bush-Cheney was dragging every last vote possible to the polls, and when independents tended to break Republican.
This year, the anti-incumbent energy knows no party lines, as Specter and Sen. Blanche Lincoln can surely attest. It doesn’t help that Specter’s strongest message seems to be based on his incumbency:
“Why would you want to trade 30 years of experience and seniority…for somebody who’s a back-bencher?” is how Specter himself put it in his remarks to the Pittsburgh-area Democrats after he rattled off all the funding he’s directed to the region thanks to his perch on the Appropriations Committee.
Here’s a fearless prediction: Supporters of Rep. Joe Sestak will not be good little soldiers if Specter beats him in the primary next week. They may vote for him, but they won’t make phone calls, knock on doors, or do any of the other things that have to be done for an election victory.
This isn’t a contested primary along the lines of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, where the eventual winner could make a credible case for support to the supporters of the eventual loser. Whether or not Specter pulls out the victory on Tuesday, he may already be a lame duck. A Sestak/Toomey race would be a battle of ideas; a Specter/Toomey race would really just be about Arlen Specter in a year where incumbents are contributing to the unemployment figures in more ways than one.