Senator Arlen Specter (PA), has switched parties, announcing that he is now a Democrat. This rocks the political world. With Al Franken likely to be seated in June, the Democrats would have 60 seats in the Senate. Landing right after the 100 day mark in the Obama presidency, it has an additional punch.
I expected Specter to do something dramatic in the next six months given the perilous state of the polling in the Republican primary, which he was losing by more than 20 points to conservative Pat Toomey. I thought he might try to run as an independent, but I imagine his own polling showed that to be a losing strategy. I was surprised that he moved now, but thinking about it, it made sense to move before he was clearly going to lose. And a number of Democrats were already lining up for the race, and if they gained momentum, Specter might have even lost the Democratic primary. Now he enters as the favorite, with the President’s backing.
Some of the background of this story was covered in my last column in the JJ.
This is devastating political news to Republicans. But they should have seen it coming. In reality, they forced Specter’s hand. By making his vote in favor of the Obama stimulus package a litmus test for Specter, they made it impossible for him to win the Republican primary. Having created the party in their own image, the conservatives now have to hear these words from Specter:
“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.”
Ouch. So much for RNC chair Michael Steele’s threat to subject maverick Republicans to primary challenges.
The rightward tilt of the Republican party and the excitement of the 2008 Democratic primary led hundreds of thousands of moderate Pennsylvania Republicans to cross party lines. Many, if not most, stayed as Democrats. In effect, Specter is not leading his fellow, endangered Republican moderates; he is following them. As sobering as the defection of Specter is, the catastrophe for Republicans is the loss of their moderate electorate.
And so the last of his breed, the moderate Jewish Republican from the Northeast, has made his move. With Norm Coleman of Minnesota on the way out, there will be no Jewish Republican Senators, and only one House member, Eric Cantor, a man of the Right. We will have to see how this affects the complex relationship between Jews and the parties.