Next Tuesday, Pennsylvanians may be tired of a senator who can’t keep his parties straight.
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) caught the crowd at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner by surprise with his greeting: “I thank the Allegheny Republican Committee for endorsing me for the Democratic nomination.” Ten minutes later, Specter concluded his remarks by saying, “Great pleasure to be endorsed by the Allegheny County Republicans, and together we’ll win for a victory.”
Just one problem: Specter was speaking to the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. The five-term incumbent had a similar slip of the tongue last month when he spoke to a group of College Democrats and said, “I’m proud to have been endorsed by the College Republicans,” before an aide prompted him to correct his error.
“I think it’s not unusual for anybody to misspeak from time to time,” Specter told reporters after Tuesday night’s Democratic dinner. “I’m not a television commentator. I’m not as smooth as you guys.” As Politico’s Jonathan Martin writes, “No one actually expects that from Specter, a grizzled survivor of bare-knuckled Philadelphia politics, two bouts with cancer and five terms in the Senate.”
The trouble is that Specter — a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat in the 45 years since he first won elected office, as a registered Democrat running on the Republican ticket — has been forgetting his party for years. The only thing he consistently remembers is what’s good for the political fortunes of Arlen Specter.
Next Tuesday, Specter’s political opportunism may finally catch up with him. In the Democratic primary, he faces Rep. Joe Sestak, a liberal second-term congressman and retired admiral. Specter wasn’t a terribly conservative Republican, to the left of his former party on abortion, racial preferences, taxes, immigration, and tort reform, but he was conservative enough to give Sestak plenty of fodder.
After joining in the borking of Robert Bork (he had just been re-elected the previous year), Specter helped turn back the borking of Clarence Thomas by grilling Anita Hill (he was up for re-election the following year). He voted for the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. The cozy photo-ops with George W. Bush and Rick Santorum that barely saved him in the 2004 GOP primary are six years later a liability in the Democratic primary against Sestak. Republican Arlen Specter voted against Elena Kagan for solicitor general but Democrat Specter will probably vote for her for the Supreme Court.
But Sestak doesn’t have to limit his campaign against Specter to left-right issues. He and likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey, the former Club for Growth president who nearly unseated Specter in the last GOP primary, can make the non-ideological case that the incumbent is someone who will say and do anything to get re-elected. (Toomey has wisely prepared himself to run against either Democrat.)
Last year, Toomey accepted the Sestak campaign’s invitation to appear at a joint health care forum. “While I look forward to a substantive debate about honest differences with Congressman Sestak, I wish such an exchange was possible with Arlen Specter,” Toomey said in a statement. “Unfortunately, with Senator Specter, one never knows which Arlen Specter will show up — the May 2009 version who opposed a public health care option, or the August 2009 version who ardently supports it.”
Sometimes Specter’s malleability reaches almost laughable proportions. Blogger and number-cruncher Nate Silver took a look at Specter’s votes in the months before and after his party switch. From the time of Barack Obama’s 10-point victory in Pennsylvania in November 2008 to late March 2009, Specter voted with the Democrats on contentious issues 58 percent of the time. Then Quinnipiac released a poll showing Toomey beating Specter by 14 points in the Republican primary. For the next month, he voted with the Democrats only 16 percent of the time.
Specter’s lurch to the right didn’t stop the bleeding with the GOP primary electorate, prompting his party switch. During his first month as a Democrat, he maintained some independence by voting with his party on contentious matters 69 percent of the time. Then Sestak announced a primary challenge. Specter adjusted by voting with the Democrats on 97 percent of the next 29 contentious Senate votes.
To put it another way: Specter went from an 84 percent Republican to a 97 percent Democrat in just two months, despite nearly 30 years of service in the Senate. “Arlen Specter,” Silver concluded, “is either just about the best reflection or the worst reflection on the state of our Democracy — it’s just hard to say which one.”
When Specter returned to the Democratic Party, he wasn’t shy about admitting why: “My change in party will allow me to be re-elected.” He also acknowledged at the time, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”
Specter hopes Pennsylvanians will have similar motivations and re-elect him because of his seniority and skill at bringing home the bacon. He asks incredulously, “Why would you want to trade 30 years of experience and seniority… for somebody who’s a back-bencher?” He said this the same day West Virginia Democrats bounced a 14-term incumbent and just three days after Utah Republicans booted a three-term senator who was also an appropriator.
The polls mostly show the race close but the momentum in Sestak’s direction. Franklin & Marshall has Sestak leading 38 percent to 36 percent, Morning Call has them tied at 45 percent, Quinnipiac has Specter up by two. The incumbent hopes that the Pennsylvania Democratic machine, promised to him as part of Obama’s naked power grab for a short-lived filibuster-proof majority, will get out the vote to put him over the top.
But not even Obama’s friends privately believe Specter deserves it. “It’s the party-switching,” one told Politico. “He just didn’t finesse it and wound up looking pretty ham-handedly like he was trying to save his own ass.” Instead Specter may have just painted a big bull’s-eye on it.
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