What to make of Specter’s decision?

“He accuses me of being a liberal, as though that’s some form of a dirty word,” said Arlen Specter of his conservative archnemesis Pat Toomey in 2004. He somehow managed to beat Toomey that year, but it was looking increasingly difficult to figure out how Specter could survive Toomey’s challenge in 2010.

Accordingly, Specter has taken the only decision that would leave him a shot at winning re-election and has left the GOP.

As such, the Senator’s decision should be interpreted first and foremost as one dictated by his electoral circumstances, and he acknowledged as much in his statement. “I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” he wrote. He also alluded to the hundreds of thousands of registered Republicans who left the party last year, making it that much more difficult for him to beat Toomey.

Similarly, Specter’s choice to run as a Democrat rather than as an independent is the one that makes the most sense for the Senator’s re-election bid. As I have explained before, an independent campaign would be difficult to pull off in a state like Pennsylvania - far more difficult than in Connecticut, where Joe Lieberman did so in 2006.  First, Pennsylvania’s voters are more partisan than in Connecticut. In the 2008 election, 31% of Connecticut voters identified themselves as independents versus 18% of Pennsylvania voters.

Second, Connecticut’s 2006 Senate race was essentially a two-man race. There was no credible Republican candidate, which made Joe Lieberman into the de facto GOP candidate: 70% of Republicans voted for Lieberman! The same situation would have been highly unlikely to take place in Pennsylvania’s Senate race; an independent Specter would have found himself in a 3-way race with no obvious reservoir of votes.

All of this gets us to the current situation: Arlen Specter, registered Republican since 1966 and GOP Senator since 1980, will now caucus with Democrats and he will run in next year’s Democratic primary. What could all of that mean?

60 Democrats

The most obvious consequence of Specter’s party switch is that, once Al Franken is seated, the Democratic caucus will have 60 votes. While the Pennsylvania Senator warned in his statement that he should not be considered an automatic 60th vote, there is little doubt that he will be more open to supporting the Democratic position than he was as a senior Republican Senator - not to mention one facing a top-tier primary campaign from a conservative challenger.

Here’s the bottom line: Harry Reid will now only need to keep his own caucus united rather than have to reach out to Republicans. That greatly improves the legislative odds of many Democratic priorities. “I’m a loyal Democrat, I support your agenda,” Specter told Obama this morning, according to an ABC News report.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Specter proving more reluctant to support the Democratic leadership than Senators like Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh are now or that Bruce Lunsford and Ronnie Musgrove would have been had they won last fall and provided Democrats a 60th seat.

On the other hand, Democrats should not start celebrating a filibuster-proof majority. The Senator might have been one of the most moderate Republicans of the Senate, but that did not make him a Lincoln Chaffee: There were obvious reasons Specter was in the GOP and it is difficult to predict how he will evolve now that he is in the Democratic caucus. Specter is a five-term Senator who has reached great heights of power and who is used to bucking his party; as he warned in his statement, he will not be a reliable vote for progressive priorities.

(In particular, Specter warned today that he still opposed to EFCA - a surprising declaration given that the Senator co-sponsored the legislation in 2007. We will have to see whether Specter just threw that sentence in his statement to defend himself against charges of opportunism. Given that Democrats still need some sort of compromise since Blanche Lincoln is also opposing EFCA, I find it hard to believe that Specter would not at least vote for cloture on whatever bill comes out of negotiations.)

As importantly: With Specter looking unlikely to make it to the general election, Democrats were already favored to pick-up the seat in 2010. They would have to live with only 59 votes until January 2011, but it was likely that they could then fill the Pennsylvania Senate seat with a Democratic Senator all the way until 2016.

Now, Specter is now favored to emerge as the Democratic nominee (as I explain below), which means that he is as liberal a Senator we can expect from the Keystone State next year. Pennsylvania is no Nebraska, Kentucky or Mississippi; Democrats could certainly have hoped for a more friendly Senator. In short: Specter’s decision is a boost to Democrats in the 111th Congress, but could be seen as a blow to progressives in the 112th, 113th and 114th Congress.

The Democratic primary

Specter will obviously have to beat back some sort of primary challenge, but he is should be considered the early favorite to prevail for a number of reasons:

1. The Democratic establishment is likely to support him: Arlen Specter did not just decide to switch parties this morning. Rumors of such a move have been in the air for months, and the Senator has undoubtedly had many talks with top Democrats - which reportedly included Vice President Biden - about the consequences of a switch. In other words, Specter would have been unlikely to pull the trigger had he not been given some assurance that he be supported by Democratic leaders, including the White House. Also, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell is a friend of Specter’s and is sure to back his primary campaign.

MSNBC confirms the existence of such an arrangement: “As part of the deal, the leadership of the Democratic party will fully support Arlen Specter, with both funding, message support and a promise to clear the primary field.” And in case there were any doubts, Barack Obama has already expressed his support. Someone has (probably innocently) leaked to the press that the President called Specter to say “you have my full support” and add that Democrats “are thrilled to have you.”

2. Will any Democrat be willing to challenge him? For much of the past few months, we have monitored the reluctance of top Democrats to take on the Pennsylvania Senator. Auditor Jack Wagner, Rep. Patrick Murphy, Allyson Schwarz and Joe Sestak were clearly unwilling to jump in the Senate race, even though there was a strong chance that Specter wouldn’t even make it to the general election. Now, any Democrat will be condemned to run an insurgent primary campaign against a longtime Senator most likely supported by President Obama and Governor Rendell. Needless to say, none of these Democrats are now likely to run, and I find it unlikely that current candidate Joe Torsella will stay in the race.

On the other hand: Specter’s vote over the next year will go a long way toward determining his electoral fate. In today’s statement, the Senator warned that he had not changed his mind on EFCA, but can that possibly be true? If the Senate holds a vote on card-check legislation, Specter’s vote will determine whether he faces labor-backed opposition: If he at least supports cloture, not only would he backed by Obama and Rendell but he would also be supported by organized labor. Needless to say, that could be all he needs to win the Democratic primary in a state like Pennsylvania.

The general election

If Specter wins the Democratic nomination, he would be heavily favored to win the general election. Pennsylvania might not be the most liberal of states, but it is Democratic. The GOP cannot win on the basis of the conservative-vote alone, and Specter is popular enough among independents to leave very little political space for the GOP. In fact, I would not be surprised if Toomey jumps out of the senatorial race and chooses to run for Governor instead.

1 Response to “What to make of Specter’s decision?”

  1. 1 Jaxx Raxor

    This is a rather major decision. In terms of Minnesota, Specter’s party switch makes it even more important for Republicans to keep Franken out of the Senate as much as possible, although I would be very suprised if Franken isn’t in by September at the absolute latest (I seriously doubt the federal courts will hear Coleman out, or even if they did I doubt they would issue a stay of a provisional seating for Franken).

    I agree that Democrats may be disappointed in having Specter as they could clearly get a more liberal Democrat. Of course, the junior senator from PA, Bob Casey, is no liberal, but at least on economic issues he is very party line. Also, the Democrats are favored to get a net gain of seats: getting the seat in Ohio in particular would be a great boom for EFCA considering the power unions have for Ohio Democrats, and either Lt. Gov Fischer or Brunner would be solid progressives. The same in New Hampshire, in which John Hodes, a solid progressive, is favored to win the seat. And perhaps some other races, such as if Jack Conway wins the primary over Mongradio in the Dem primary of Kentucky, could make Spectar not being as liberal as some owuld like less of a problem.

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