Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) announced today that he is leaving the Republican Party and will run as a Democrat in the Pennsylvania primary next year.
No surprise here, as Specter had become a GOP pariah thanks to his vote to approve the stimulus bill, his vocal opposition and running down of the Bush administration, and his positions on a variety of issues from interrogation to stem cells.
No doubt the challenge by former Congressman Pat Toomey in the GOP primary had a lot to do with Specter’s decision. But in his statement, the 79-year-old veteran made it clear that the GOP had quite simply become too conservative for him:
“I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary,” said Specter in a statement. “I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.”
He added: “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.”
This has been true for many years. But Specter found room in the party by making himself useful. He generated respect on both sides of the aisle for his thoughtfulness, candor, and willingness to offer himself as a bridge between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
It was a thankless job and one where the GOP did not always welcome his bipartisan efforts. This was especially true of the conservative base of the party. They never trusted him, never liked him, and found him to be the personification of what came to be known as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
Stacey McCain has a typical reaction on the right:
Exit lying. One less member of the Senate Republican “Jellyfish Caucus.” Specter reminds me of the high-school slut trying to sleep her way to popularity — a weak reed, blown by the shifting winds. The fact that the national GOP apparatus lined up behind this venomous crapweasel in 2004 is all you need to know about what a worthless waste of time the national GOP apparatus was during the Bush/Mehlman era.
Even if Specter wins the Democratic primary (which is certainly not a given) and wins the general election (also not a given), no one will ever respect him because he is dishonorable and untrustworthy. A pox upon him and his ilk.
Specter’s defection highlights the fact that the Republican Party is virtually non-existent in the northeast, except for pockets here and there that border red states or cling ever more precariously to tradition. The kind of Republicans who used to represent the latter are mostly gone now as voters in those long-held GOP districts are more and more faced with the option of voting for someone more conservative than they may be comfortable with versus a moderate Democrat. Given the bad odor in which the GOP finds itself with many voters today, the choice is virtually made for them.
Specter’s switch means that the Democrats have a technical, filibuster-proof majority once Al Franken, who is a certain winner in Minnesota, takes his seat. How reliable a Democratic vote Specter will be is an open question. On domestic politics, he is likely to vote with his new party on many issues. But Specter will be to the right of most Democrats when it comes to foreign policy and it remains to be seen where he will eventually land.
Specter also found himself in trouble with national party leaders who were angered by his vote in favor of the stimulus bill. RNC Chairman Michael Steele threatened to cut off funding to his campaign at one point — a threat we will never know if he would have made good.
And recent polls showing Specter trailing Toomey badly no doubt also helped nudge him across the aisle. He may simply have thought that running in the Democratic primary against lesser known challengers would have been a lot easier — and safer — than running against the well-funded Toomey.
What used to be known as the “Rockefeller” wing of the Republican Party may have finally expired. On life support for years, the long list of moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest who have lost in primaries or the general elections in 2006 and 2008 — many of them serving a decade or more in Congress — attests to the lurch rightward of the party in the last decade and the increasing stridency of its conservative base whose drive to expel RINOs from the GOP and make the Republican Party a true conservative party hit paydirt today.
Time will tell whether this effort will lead to victory or oblivion.