Faced with a stiff challenge from conservatives and part of the dying breed of moderate Republicans, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has announced that he’s leaving the GOP and will become a Democrat — creating a new situation in his up-til-now troubled re-election bid, further thinning the ranks of once powerful moderate Republicans and potentially giving the Democrats a 60 vote filibuster-proof Senate if Minnesota’s Al Franken is seated in that disputed race.
“I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary,” the Pennsylvania senator said in a statement.
“I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” Specter said, adding that the “change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans.”
MSNBC notes that he had previously said there was no way he’d switch parties — but it’s clear the extent of the conservative challenge to him, coupled with some of the rhetoric on conservative talk shows which serve as a rallying point for many conservative Republicans, may have made him conclude his party no longer wanted his kind of Republicanism.
Three likely immediate impacts: (1) The Democrats will be in better shape, even if Franken is not seated. (2) If Franken is seated, the Democrats will be in better shape than the scenarios that have been in play so far. (3) The Democratic Party will appear to be a bigger tent by having Specter join its ranks at a time when the GOP is moving more to the right as it also suffers significant shrinkage.
UPDATE: RNC Chairman Michael Steele has responded in the way typical of 21st century American politics — by issuing a blistering statement that seeks to discredit Specter, obscuring the larger issue of moderates and whether the GOP will be a big tent or a small tent. His statement is symptomatic of the party’s problem with those who are not conservatives:
Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not.
Let’s be honest-Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.
Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.
The Daily Kos has Specter’s full statement HERE.
Some other media reaction:
The move gives Democrats control of 59 votes in the Senate, leaving them one shy of 60 needed for procedural control of the chamber. One senate seat remains unfilled, in Minnesota, where a close recount remains tied up in court. But analysts say Democrat Al Franken is favored to win that legal battle in the coming weeks, giving Democrats the majority they are seeking.
A Republican who is close to Senate GOP leadership said Republican leaders still hold a glimmer of hope to hold off Mr. Specter’s party switch. But it isn’t likely.
Mr. Specter, who provided President Barack Obama the critical vote for his $787 billion stimulus plan, faced a powerful challenge in 2010 from former Rep. Pat Toomey, who hoped to unseat Mr. Specter in a Republican primary. Vice President Joe Biden had been openly courting his old friend and colleague from the Senate Judiciary Committee, making the case that he could breeze to re-election as a Democrat.
In a statement, Specter said he is leaving the Republican Party because it “has moved far to the right” and away from being a “big tent.” Specter, 79, was first elected to the Senate in 1980.
“I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” he said.
Specter also noted that more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration last year to become Democrats.
Go to the link. USA Today notes that the White House offered this tidbit complete with a note on when it took place:
President Obama reaches Senator Specter and tells him “you have my full support” and that we are “thrilled to have you.
Specter, a five-term Senate veteran, was expected to face a very tough primary challenge in 2010 from former Rep. Pat Toomey, who nearly defeated Specter in the Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary in 2004.
A Quinnipiac University survey of registered Pennsylvania voters released last month showed Specter trailing the more conservative Toomey in a hypothetical primary matchup, 41 to 27 percent.
A separate Franklin & Marshall survey showed Specter leading Toomey 33 to 18 percent. Another 42 percent, however, were undecided.
More than half of the Republicans polled in the Franklin & Marshall survey said they would prefer to see someone new in the Senate.
Numerous Republicans are angry with Specter over his recent vote in support of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan.
Specter, one of only three GOP senators to vote for the measure, has been part of a dwindling group of GOP moderates from the northeastern part of the country
NBC’s Chuck Todd says the “bigger story” is going to be that Arlen Specter is going to be “telling a story about how the Republican party left him” — that moderate Republicans are not being accepted by the rank and file Republican party. We’ve noted this (including a personal story) on this site. Watch it: Todd contends the GOP’s problem now is that the moderate Republicans are defecting to Democrats:
UPDATE: Here’s Specter’s full statement:
Statement by Senator Arlen Specter
I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.
Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.
Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.
I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.
I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.
I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters. I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the Party I have worked for for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate. It is very painful on both sides. I thank specially Senators McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance.
I am not making this decision because there are no important and interesting opportunities outside the Senate. I take on this complicated run for re-election because I am deeply concerned about the future of our country and I believe I have a significant contribution to make on many of the key issues of the day, especially medical research. NIH funding has saved or lengthened thousands of lives, including mine, and much more needs to be done. And my seniority is very important to continue to bring important projects vital to Pennsylvania’s economy.
I am taking this action now because there are fewer than thirteen months to the 2010 Pennsylvania Primary and there is much to be done in preparation for that election. Upon request, I will return campaign contributions contributed during this cycle.
While each member of the Senate caucuses with his Party, what each of us hopes to accomplish is distinct from his party affiliation. The American people do not care which Party solves the problems confronting our nation. And no Senator, no matter how loyal he is to his Party, should or would put party loyalty above his duty to the state and nation.
My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.
Whatever my party affiliation, I will continue to be guided by President Kennedy’s statement that sometimes Party asks too much. When it does, I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America.
A CROSS-SECTION OF WEBLOG OPINION ON THIS POLITICAL STORY:
—Marc Ambinder has a must read post that needs to be read in FULL. Here is just part of it. He talks about the filibuster-proof Senate if Franken is seated:
But it likely won’t mean a simple, across-the-board approval of the Democratic wish list. In fact, it may not change much when it comes to some major pieces of legislation.
Specter has always gone his own way, and his statement today highlights that independent streak…While he has a new party label, he’s not that into party labels. And while he’ll eat lunch with the Democrats every Tuesday, across the hall from his old party colleagues, he still represents a moderate faction of senators that will form the crux of many legislative negotiations in the upper chamber–signifying a critical vote with enormous power over what language the Senate passes in major policy initiatives.
Simply being around Democrats and their ideas, talking to them instead of Republicans on a daily basis, could influence his thinking. But if we are to take Sen. Specter at his word, he may prove both as troublesome–and, alternately, as friendly–to both parties as he was yesterday.
MSNBC’s David Shuster….relayed the information that Specter reached the decision because he realized that his vote for the stimulus package had irrevocably breached his relationship with the increasingly wingnutty Republican base, and that he was no longer willing to submit himself to the judgment of that base in the GOP primary. Smart move.
Of course, now that he’s a Democrat, don’t expect any miracles. Reportedly, he still intends to vote against cloture on the Employee Free Choice Act …
Well, it appears that the head of the Turncoat Caucus is finally making it official. Arlen Specter, we have just 10 words for you:
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
—David Sirota, writing in The Huffington Post, says it’s good news for the Democrats — but now Specter needs to run in a Democratic primary:
Let me just conclude on a personal note: I think I speak for myself and anyone who ever lived/grew up in Pennsylvania that it’s really hard to believe this. Arlen Specter has been an awful Republican senator for as long as I can remember. Since I was a kid growing up outside of Philadelphia, he was a guy who always seemed to be on the political stage at all times, and most often seemed to be doing bad things. The best you could say about him was that he wasn’t as bad as his heinously awful Republican colleagues – but that’s not saying much.
The idea of Specter running in a Democratic primary is really crazy – and I’m hopeful it will be a contested primary. State/local Democrats shouldn’t simply defer to this guy, who Pennsylvania’s rank-and-file Democratic voters/activists have been trying to dislodge for years (and rightly so). Even as we applaud Specter for switching parties, we shouldn’t simply concede the primary. Indeed, there needs to be a contested and vigorous primary, especially since Specter’s EFCA announcement means he will need pressure on his left, and especially since the primary winner in the increasingly blue state of Pennsylvania has a great shot of defeating someone like Toomey.
Some on the right will now declare “good riddance” or “he was a Democrat anyway.” Perhaps this is true. But I think many will live to regret this. As a member of the Republican party, subject to the threat of a primary, conservatives had at least some leverage over Specter….. Now that leverage is gone, and the pressures on Specter will be the opposite. Expect to see real changes in Specter’s voting record. In fact, we saw a similar result with Senator Jeffords…… A similar effect occurred with Democrats who switched to the Republicans in the 1990s. Republicans may enjoy losing an occasional thorn in their side, but the prospects for Obama’s agenda have just been greatly enhanced.
The other thought is that this switch seems unlikely absent the primary challenge from Pat Toomey. In effect, Specter’s chances of being re-elected as a Republican were close to nil no matter what; Specter’s choice here is the rational one. But this presents a long-term problem for the Republican party. American politics are played between the 40-yard lines. But when a substantial portion of the party demands that their players occupy territory somewhere around the 10-yard line — even in states that are positioned more around the opposing 40, how does that party ever claim a majority? So long as a substantial number of Republicans insist on positioning themselves between their own goal line and 40, they can’t expect much other than Democratic supermajorities in both houses.
I say good and let the door hit him on his way out. I know the MSM is saying he’s a moderate but Specter is anything but a moderate. Specter just saw the writing on the wall that he wasn’t going to win the Republican primary in 2010. His polling in PA just keeps going down. I hope there are other liberal Republicans who join him.,,,Go Pat Toomey! I’m sure that Republican leadership has their panties in a knot but who cares. They were willing to back Specter against Toomey in a primary challenge. “The Party” is supposed to stay out of primaries.
Faced with dim prospects for reelection in Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter has announced that he will switch parties. The question is how democrats in Pennsylvania will feel about Specter who supported Bush on critical issues. After eight years under George W. Bush, Specter has come to the conclusion that he is really a Democrat and does not share the same GOP values as his former party.
Pro-abort Republican Senator from Pennsylvania Arlen Specter is now pro-abort Democrat Senator Arlen Specter. He does this of course because he realized that Pat Toomey would have creamed him in the Republican primary in 2010. Instead, assuming that the Democrats are deluded enough to nominate him, Toomey will cream him in the general election. This should be a prime race for all pro-lifers around the nation next year.
This defection, coming at a time when historically low numbers of Americans are identifying themselves as Republican, would seem to be a manifestation of said Death Spiral. These problems, indeed, were particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where many of the state’s more moderate Republicans had re-registered as Democrats to vote in the state’s extremely contentious primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Thus, given an extremely conservative Republican electorate, Specter appeared to be an underdog against his extremely conservative primary challenger, Pat Toomey, and switched parties in order to increase his odds of survival.
But this is not necessarily an unmitigated win for the Democrats. Unlike Jim Jeffords’ switch in 2001, this does not affect who controls the Senate Chamber. Rather, it merely nudges the filibuster math, which has always been somewhat fuzzy. While the Democrats will have a nominal total of 60 votes once Al Franken is seated, the Senate’s fortunes will still be determined by a group of about a dozen moderate senators from both parties (including Specter), just as it was before.
The real question is — how often will Specter’s vote change as a result of this?….If he goes from voting with the Democrats 40 percent of the time to 60 percent of the time, that is not so terrific for them, particularly if the 60th seat raises expectations and lends credence to Republican claims about the need for divided government.
This is huge news for Democrats, removing roadblocks to the President’s agenda in a year where he’s vowed to tackle thorny issues like the environment and healthcare. But perhaps the more important story here is what Specter’s defection says about the state of the Republican Party. Specter’s statement, released on Politics PA earlier today, amounts to a critique of a shriveling party which has deserted Specter, rather than Specter deserting it. Specter refuses to allow his political fate to lie in the hands of the conservative wing of his party.
It’s the far right that has pushed Specter to the Democratic Party, but let’s also not ignore the broadening of our tent. This includes Blue Dog Dems, which infuriate us all, but allow for a wider political world that includes politicians that represent their districts, even if they don’t mirror what many liberals want to see. Wingnut radio will be tap dancing as fast as they can. Rush just moments ago, talking about the “drive-by media” framing of Specter’s party switch:
“How can the Rep. Party claim to be a national party if they can’t keep a moderate like Arlen Specter? What’s wrong with that question, Snerdly? … People who are leaving the party aren’t really Republicans… not really conservatives.”
Shorter Rush: Specter is really a Dem.
If Al Franken prevails in his ongoing court case in Minnesota and Mr. Specter begins caucusing with Democrats, Democrats would have 60 votes and the ability to deny Republicans the chance to stall legislation. Mr. Specter was one of only three Republicans to support President Obama’s economic recovery legislation.
The news shocked Senate Republicans, who had been hanging on to their ability to block legislation by a thread. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called an emergency meeting of party leaders who had no forewarning of Mr. Specter’s plans.
–The Week has this good roundup.
–Another roundup from Andrew Sullivan.
He’d have happily run for re-election as a Republican if not for Toomey getting into the race and quickly jumping out to a 21-point lead. Specter tried to make it an open primary so that the left might rescue him but couldn’t, and Pennsylvania’s election laws prevented him from doing what Lieberman did to Lamont three years ago: In PA, if you compete in a primary and lose, you’re done. No independent candidacy. So his choice, essentially, was either to switch to an independent now and skip the primary or go the whole nine yards by becoming a Democrat, giving the left a presumptive filibuster-proof majority (once Franken is seated), and extracting whatever concessions he could from them in return, e.g. committee chairmanships, DNC fundraising, etc. The Hill actually kinda sorta predicted this last month. It’s pure self-preservation on Specter’s part, expecting that he’ll be able to handle Toomey easily in the general when Democrats and indies can push him through.
–Ed Morrisey (same link as above):
I’m in the good-riddance category here. Normally I argue for a big tent and the need to woo moderates by focusing on core values. Specter betrayed those values in his Porkulus vote and cloture cave. He could have forced Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to start negotiating in good faith with his Republican colleagues, but instead allowed them to shove a bad bill down their throats.
My only objection to the move is the timing. Specter is either an idiot or a liar to claim that the Republican Party’s ideological movement is something sudden. Certainly, he was well to the left of the national base in 2004. Why didn’t he run as a Democrat, then?
I’ve been arguing for years that it is unethical for elected officials to change parties without resigning and running for re-election. That’s doubly true when doing so would alter the balance of power in the Senate. Most of the Pennsylvanians who voted for Specter in 2004 did so, in many cases reluctantly, on the good faith belief that he would vote with the Republican Party on leadership and at least nominally be part of the Republican coalition, even if departing from it on a number of key issue votes.
But as we’ve seen, Specter has no convictions he won’t betray in his naked efforts to remain in power. If Pennsylvania labor was smart, they’d get a real Democrat to say he was going to primary Specter. It’s likely Specter expects Gov. Ed Rendell to clear the field for him. But given a serious primary challenger (or even the threat of one), there’s little reason Specter wouldn’t flip right back on EFCA.
Still, while Specter’s switch was every bit as unprincipled as Steele says, fact is that he switched because the GOP has moved far to Specter’s Right. He was going to get crushed in the primary of a party that had little problem electing him over a 40-year career. Now, with moderate Republicans in the Keystone State abandoning the GOP in droves in favor of the Democratic Party, it was clear his base had abandoned him to the Dems, and what was left of the Pennsylvania GOP was more in sync with John Cornyn’s Texas than in the Pennsylvania mainstream.
Republicans are doing their darndest today to combat the already growing meme that the their party is so far out of the mainstream that it can’t hold onto its moderate members. A few minutes ago, for instance, Karl Rove was on Fox News claiming that the Republican Party didn’t leave Arlen Specter, but that Specter left the Republican Party. (Rove, not surprisingly, fudged the facts, calling Specter a lifelong Republican, but that’s neither here nor there.) Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, “Let’s be honest — Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.”
But take a look at the facts. The Republican Party has done its best to kick out or otherwise make uncomfortable those within its ranks who don’t hew to the most orthodox of conservative ideologies, both broadly and specifically in the case of Specter….So while there is no denying that this is a move of political expediency for Specter, it is also definitely the case that the Republican Party forced him — one of their longest serving members in the Senate — out of their ranks for not being sufficiently conservative. For a party that has been drubbed in two straight national elections (John McCain lost moderates by a 21-point margin, a deficit that was a real drag on his electoral chances), kicking out one of its most prominent moderates simply is not good for its image..
Senator Specter has officially switched parties. It’s a big deal symbolically, but I don’t expect this to make much difference in policy. I expect him to vote pretty much the same way as a moderate Democrat as he did as a liberal “Republican”.
The biggest difference this would make would be in the 2010 election, where he looked very likely to lose the Republican primary.
Indeed, it sends a signal to voters: the Republican Party is home to Limbaugh, Tea Baggers, Palin, right-wing blogs, the Rove/Cheney/Gingrich triumvirate — and no one else. The party that’s been shrinking to generational lows just got even smaller.
For three months, the conservative message has been that President Obama, his widespread popularity notwithstanding, is some kind of radical ideologue, far from the American mainstream. Specter’s departure from the GOP sends the exact opposite message. Moderate Republicans are teaming up with Obama, and leaving the party that has “moved far to the right” behind.
What’s evident is that Specter’s switch has nothing really to do with ideology. He ran in 1980 as part of the Reagan Revolution — and nothing the Republicans are doing today is any more conservative (or in MSM-speak, “extreme”) than the Reagan platform in 1980.
To put it politely, Specter is switching parties so he can go where the line is shortest. There is no real competition for the Democratic nomination back to the Senate; on the Republican side, he was running 21 points behind Pat Toomey.
So if one isn’t over-burdened with any sense of ideological commitment (and honor, given all the years the GOP has taken flack for supporting a “moderate” like Specter over more conservative candidates), Specter’s move makes perfect sense. If it’s all about holding office — and not much else — he’s done the rational thing.
This is big, big, big, — BIG.
So, here is how I understand things:
1. We get no new votes on legislation from Specter
2. Democrats are given no opportunity to challenge Specter in either the primary or general election, thereby locking all of his bad votes into place even though he is in a blue state.
So, we not only get no new votes, but we lose the ability to challenge those votes. Apart from the image of total Republican fail, this isn’t a good thing at all. Not only do we have to deal with Specter’s voting record, which is worse than any other Democrat in the entire Senate, but we are denied the opportunity to even challenge him.
I like sticking it to Republicans. But I am also pretty pissed right now. We need to run a primary challenge against Specter anyway, leadership be damned.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.