Specter faces make-or-break decision
By Alexander Bolton
Posted: 03/07/09 11:34 AM [ET]
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) does not have the fall-back option of running as an independent should he lose his 2010 primary election, giving the senior lawmaker strong incentive to abandon his party this year.
Specter faces an extremely difficult primary race against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the conservative firebrand who lost his bid to oust Specter from his seat in the 2004 GOP primary by a mere 17,000 votes (out of more than a million cast).
Pennsylvania political experts say that Specter would likely face a more difficult challenge in 2010 because the Republican primary electorate in Pennsylvania has become more conservative.
“I think he has a lot of problems,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “I think this is the test of lifetime.”
Madonna estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 centrist Republicans switched registration to the Democratic Party in the 2008 election cycle, leaving the remaining GOP electorate more conservative.
The Pennsylvania Department of State reported more than 130,000 switches from the GOP to the Democratic Party before the 2008 primary contest between President Obama and former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
The massive exodus of centrist-leaning voters from the Pennsylvania GOP leaves Specter’s right flank extremely vulnerable — fiscal and social conservatives have long viewed him as a bête noire.
Colleague Joe Lieberman (Conn.) faced a similar threat in 2006, when liberals voted en masse against him in the Democratic primary. Lieberman lost to Ned Lamont in August of that year but came back to defeat him by running as an independent in the general election.
Specter does not have that option under Pennsylvania law.
“A candidate who loses in a primary cannot run as an independent in the general election,” said Leslie Amoros, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State.”
Specter is disadvantaged by the fact that Pennsylvania’s primaries are closed; independents and Democrats are barred from voting in the GOP contest.
The rightward shift of the GOP electorate in Pennsylvania and the lack of a fall-back option such as Lieberman relied on in 2006 puts strong pressure on Specter to contemplate his future as a Republican.
Specter would have a stronger chance against Toomey in the fall general election when independents and centrist Republicans-turned-Democrats could vote.
Democratic strategists acknowledge it would be difficult to defeat Specter in a general election because of his strong ties to labor and centrist voting record.
Specter could run as an independent or return to the Democratic Party. He switched to the Republican Party in 1965 to run as district attorney in heavily Democratic Philadelphia in 1965.
Madonna, of Franklin and Marshall College, thinks it would be difficult for Specter to run as an independent.
“Running as an independent is not a good deal,” he said. “Pennsylvanians haven’t elected an independent to anything.”
The dynamics of the GOP primary may change, however, if another conservative candidate jumped into the race. Peg Luksik, a well-known socially conservative activist has expressed strong interest. She could inadvertently throw Specter a life preserver by splitting supply-side and social conservatives in the primary.
Should Specter stay with his party and lose to Toomey, it would create a tempting pick-up opportunity for Democrats.
Democratic strategists say that Toomey would be an easier candidate to defeat because of his outspoken conservatism, especially after Democratic voter registration jumped dramatically in 2008.
So far Joe Torsella, president of the National Constitution Center and former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, is the only declared Democratic candidate.
One Democratic strategist said that Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy (Pa.) and Joe Sestak (Pa.) could also declare Senate bids, a possibility made more likely by the emergence of Toomey.
The Pennsylvania-based political consultant, however, dismissed the possibility that Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) or Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.) would run for Specter’s seat.
The strategist noted that Schwartz just won a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and that Specter gave Rendell his first big job out of law school in the district attorney’s office.
Rendell would not able to declare a Senate candidacy after the winner of the GOP primary was known. The Democratic consultant said there is a chance that Rendell could make a bid if Specter announced his retirement early.
Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a group that advocates for lower taxes and smaller government, bashed Specter’s vote last month for the economic stimulus package.
“Unfortunately, the recent extraordinary response of the federal government — more corporate bailouts, unprecedented spending and debt, higher taxes – is likely to make things worse,” Toomey said in a recent statement.
“I think we are on a dangerously wrong path. Pennsylvanians want a U.S. senator focused on real and sustainable job creation that gets our economy growing again.”