Campaign Crawlers

Obama Defeats Specter

Ties prove fatal for one-time Republican once assured of an easy GOP renomination.

By 5.20.10

Send to Kindle

Wait a minute.

Let's back up and stay focused on why, exactly, Arlen Specter lost this race -- and had his career ended.

Two words: Barack Obama.

Story time.

Last April, in 2009, Senator Arlen Specter, then the Republican senior Senator from Pennsylvania, stopped in Harrisburg for a meeting with a group of Pennsylvania conservatives. This was a fairly routine thing for Specter to do. He had had a career's worth of disagreements with conservatives, but he had also had some serious agreements. While his famous opposition to Robert Bork is prominent among the former, among the latter was his fierce support for Supreme Court nominees Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Sam Alito. Less publicized but equally strong was his support for Reagan and Bush lower court nominees, support that was critical due to Specter's long-running role as a senior member or chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the past, Specter would eagerly walk into the lion's den and dazzle with his command of the issues and his candor. Furious conservatives would relent, grit their teeth, shake their heads in begrudging admiration -- and life would go on. After Specter came close to losing his 2004 re-nomination to then-Congressman and conservative champion Pat Toomey, things appeared to have settled in, with the recognition that Specter would get his one and presumably last term -- his sixth. Toomey had given repeated signals that he had no intention of taking on Specter again and was instead focused on a race for governor. Specter was in the clear for an uncontested re-nomination to that sixth term.

But on this April day, trouble was in the air. You could almost smell it.

In February, Specter was only one of three Senate Republicans (Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins the other two) to break ranks and support the Obama $838 billion stimulus package as it passed the upper chamber on a 61-37 vote. Barely a month into Obama's term, Americans were uneasy -- and this was months before the explosion that was ObamaCare.

Sitting across the table from Specter, I listened in silence as he was peppered with questions about his stimulus vote. The people in this room were furious. There was no being dazzled here today. There was no silent gritting of teeth. This was something else entirely.

The stimulus vote had taken place in the Senate on February 9. And this very day -- April 15th -- Pat Toomey had announced he had changed his mind about running for governor. Spurred by the overwhelmingly bad reaction to Specter's vote for Obama's stimulus, Toomey had changed course and plunged into the Senate race.

On the spot what had once been a sure-thing re-nomination for Specter -- by Republicans -- was under siege.

The meeting over, I asked for an interview. Like a lot of Pennsylvanians, I have known Arlen Specter a long time. He is tenacious, a fierce competitor. The pluperfect example of the unglamorous underdog who wins simply because he persists and refuses to give up. Over the years he had lost races for district attorney of Philadelphia, mayor of Philadelphia, Senator from Pennsylvania, Governor of Pennsylvania. Even for president. And each and every time, like Philadelphia's favorite fictional fighter Rocky Balboa, Specter had gotten up and climbed back into the ring, finally winning a Senate seat in 1980 on the undisputed coattails of Ronald Reagan. He would serve for thirty years, becoming the longest serving U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania history.

But there was something going on here this morning, as the atmosphere in that roomful of conservatives had just attested. The questions were barely polite, sharp. The atmosphere tense. No one could understand why Specter -- or any rational, thinking person -- would sign onto Obama's so-called "stimulus." Everyone thought it not just a waste of money but dangerous, a threat -- a serious threat -- to the American economy that was (correctly, as it turned out) but a precursor to even more reckless spending and indebtedness to come.

We stepped outside the building. I scrambled for notepaper and pen. Specter said he would have an aide tape the whole interview and e-mail the audio. He wanted to talk.

The polls that April morning, the very day of Pat Toomey's formal announcement, showed Specter getting trounced. And I do mean trounced. Pennsylvania Republicans -- reflective of the people we had just left in that room -- were furious with him. Yet Specter was determined, not in the least an unusual posture for this man.

He began by launching on Toomey. What I was listening to was a virtual declaration of political war. Even standing there looking at him face to face I had no idea how much I was underestimating the situation.

"I've been sitting back for the last six years taking insistent criticism from him," he seethed. "The campaign is underway and I intend to fire back. It's hardball. Hard hardball." 

Toomey had spent the years between his 2004 loss and today's announcement to run against Specter again as the president of the supply-side oriented Club for Growth, a group dedicated to raising money to defeat candidates -- Republicans included -- who had abandoned the success of Reaganomics, the classical principles of economic prosperity that had provided an almost unbroken record of a quarter century of economic growth from Reagan through the end days of George W. Bush. Specter pounced on the Club.

Said Specter evenly:

"Toomey represents the Club for Growth which has engaged in cannibalistic tactics. When they fought [recently defeated GOP Senator Lincoln] Chafee in the Rhode Island primary, spent all his money, beat him in the general, that cost us control of the Senate. In the Senate…we would have controlled the Senate had we retained Chafee's seat in 2007 and 2008."

I had written a book several years earlier detailing Specter's resolute fight for a conservative Bush nominee to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, detailing his opposition to the hard-left interest groups that sought, in their typical fashion, not simply to defeat the nomination but destroy the nominee. Specter had stood up to them -- from Ralph Neas and Nan Aron to the National Organization for Women. In 2008 I saw him at another of these meetings and he greeted me with a grin: "Are you going to write another book and make me the hero?" Everyone had laughed.

No one was laughing this morning, but knowing of my interest in placing conservatives on the court, Specter segued into the issue in an almost stream-of-consciousness moment.

"Bush left 13 circuit judges on the table and I think about 24 district judges on the table who could have been confirmed had we had Republican control and I had been the chairman [of the Senate Judiciary Committee]," he said, angrily underlining what he felt was the Club's role -- which is to say Toomey's role -- in losing control of the Senate in 2006.

Meanwhile, even as we stood in the cold air of a gray April morning, Specter's campaign was on television going after Toomey. Toomey was guilty of having worked on Wall Street, selling "risky derivatives and swaps." Most negative political ads of this type feature an announcer's voice whispering dark, accusatory somethings about the opponent, the candidate himself or herself never seen. Not this time. This time, there was Arlen Specter himself, bluntly accusing Toomey, saying "it's derivatives and swaps that have now plunged us into this financial mess." 

Clearly, Specter had no intention of backing away from that stimulus vote. He would try and make the case that the whole economic mess was Toomey's fault -- an argument that had just fallen flatter than a run-over pancake only moments ago in a roomful of conservatives.

No matter. The same day a letter had gone out to Toomey, signed not by the usual campaign aide but by Specter himself. The letter was as in-your-face as the TV commercial, accusing Toomey of being -- an investment banker.

Specter shifted gears once again, looking me steadily in the eye as he finished venting about judges. This time he brought in the 2006 defeat of then-Senator Rick Santorum. "There's no way Toomey can win a general election," he said. "You know that the Santorum experience is conclusive on it. Toomey is to the right of Santorum. Santorum's lifetime conservative record is 88, Toomey's is 97. Santorum spent $31 million [in his losing 2006 race against Democrat Bob Casey, Jr.], two-term senator, number three in leadership and he lost by 18 points."

Now he tried another approach. "The only check and balance on the Democratic sweep with the White House and the House is 41 of us in the Senate. Because if Toomey is the Republican nominee and my seat goes, the Democrats get 60 votes. And they run rough shod on increasing taxes and bringing card check and a lot of other things that are anathema to Republicans."

His last words, delivered with a sudden wry smile, were about sending Toomey a message. "After this I'm going to send a tough one."

The message came thirteen days later. It was stunning. He had given no clue of it that day in Harrisburg -- or in retrospect, maybe he had and I just didn't have the wit to pick up on it.

Standing in front of microphones in the Senate press gallery in Washington, the man who had won his first Senate election as a Republican on Reagan's coattails in 1980 said this of his support for the Obama stimulus:

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. 

And with that, whether Specter understood it or not when he chose to cast his vote as he did, Barack Obama had taken his first political casualty as president.

Only months earlier Arlen Specter was poised for an easy re-nomination to a sixth term as a Republican. There was no one of any real stature on the horizon on the Democrats' side seen as capable of beating him -- Pennsylvania Democrat Congressman Joe Sestak included.

But going out on a limb for Obama was a limb too far.

By August, Specter was making his usual round of town hall meetings across the state. These events had historically been quiet affairs over the years, a scramble by Specter aides to fill rooms on hot summer days and nights when most Pennsylvanians are on vacation or working or would rather watch the Phillies or the Pirates with a cold beer.

Now, all hell had broken loose.

The meeting in Philadelphia, with Obama Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at his side, had erupted on television screens across the nation. This was Philadelphia -- Arlen Specter's home turf, his base, a town filled with Democrats -- and the cameras showed angry Philadelphians yelling and shaking indignant fists. They were furious -- this time not just over his stimulus vote but his support of ObamaCare.

Not long afterwards, on August 11, the Senator came to bucolic, nearby Lebanon, the epitome of small town Pennsylvania. I drove over to see the spectacle. And it was that -- a spectacle. There was no way to get inside his town meeting -- the line stretched literally around the block. An astonished local cop told me there were at least 1,000 -- that's one thousand people in the streets of this small town. I had no doubt.

A flashy red convertible that reminded of Stephen King's Christine, the novel about a car possessed by the forces of the supernatural, slowly made its way through the main blocks. Taped to its sides were huge sides that read "Dump Arlen" or some such. The driver was greeted as a conquering hero to thunderous applause. All morning he circled, getting huge applause upon every re-appearance.

Homemade signs bobbed everywhere, including one directed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi that read:

I am not a Nazi
I am not a Mob
I am not a Wacko
How dare you…

I walked the streets, tape recorder and video camera in hand. The accusation was flying, beginning with Pelosi, that the presence of crowds like this one was nothing more than "astro turf" or rented crowds. So I asked. Were you told to come here? No, came the answer, repeatedly and emphatically. No, no and no again. The very question they found insulting, with one sign making the point clear: "If it's Astroturf why are you trying to mow it?"

Said one middle-aged woman to me when questioned, clearly furious: "I'm a wife, mother and a homemaker. I don't even know anybody in the insurance business. I really resent the fact that Nancy Pelosi has deemed me a mob and a Nazi!"

Lurking, several people in the purple shirts of the SEIU appeared, vastly outnumbered. All but one refused to talk.

Inside Specter's townhall meeting, things were barely much better. As with the crowd outside, Pennsylvanians had come from all over the area. The Senator was berated, the anger of his constituents as palpable on television screens that night as it was in person outside on the streets.

"You have awakened a sleeping giant," a 35-year old Katy Abraham told Specter, to the indignant applause of the crowd.

Actually, Ms. Abraham was only half right. The sleeping giant is indeed awake. He now roams the land from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Virginia to Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

But the man who awoke that sleeping giant wasn't named Arlen Specter.

The man who awoke the sleeping giant that is the American people is the same man who snuffed out Arlen Specter's career -- a career once on track to an effortless re-nomination and probable re-election as a Republican.

That man's name is Barack Obama.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.