Sen. Specter viewed as a model Democrat one year after switch

Sen. Specter viewed as a model Democrat one year after switch

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) says he feels fully comfortable with his new party since leaving the GOP almost a year ago.

And, facing a challenge from the left in the May Democratic primary, Specter seems every bit the reliable foot soldier.

He’s become a leading advocate for organized labor within the Senate Democratic Conference and has developed close working relationships with some of the party’s most influential leaders.

“My colleagues on the Democratic side have been very receptive,” Specter said in an interview.

“They were glad to see me buck the Republican obstructionism and provide key support on the stimulus and the 60th vote on healthcare reform,” he said.

When he was a Republican, Specter gave GOP leaders and the conservative base fits with his independent stands, such as not voting to convict former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonKentucky candidate takes heat for tweeting he'd like to use congressman for target practice Will Sessions let other 'McCabes' off the hook or restore faith in justice? Progressive group launches anti-Trump 'We the Constitution' campaign MORE during Senate impeachment proceedings.

Despite vowing independence when he switched parties on April 28 of last year, Specter has become a model Democratic senator.

During Specter’s 29-year career as a Senate Republican, he voted with Democrats 35 percent of the time. Since switching parties in 2009, he has cast more than 95 out of 100 votes with Democratic leaders.

Specter said his political outlook became “irreconcilable” with the GOP when most of his Republican colleagues refused to support economic stimulus legislation that he says “saved the country from a 1929 depression.”

When an estimated 210,000 Pennsylvania Republicans switched their party registration to Democrat during the 2008 presidential campaign, Specter realized he couldn’t win this year’s GOP primary.

“On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter told reporters last year. “I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.”

Specter said Friday that his Republican colleagues have understood and accepted the reasons for his shift.

He’s not heard a word of criticism from them in private and still has “easy conversations” with Sens. John CornynJohn CornynSenate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump GOP senator threatened to hold up bill over provision to honor late political rival: report Overnight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate MORE (R-Texas), Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFeinstein, Harris call for probe of ICE after employee resigns House Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents Sen. Gardner won’t let Jeff Sessions tread on Colorado’s cannabis boom MORE (R-Ala.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators introduced revised version of election cyber bill GOP senators push tougher sentencing for synthetic opioid Dems aim to turn ObamaCare hikes into election weapon MORE (R-S.C.) in the Senate gym early in the morning.

“It’s very congenial,” he said.

Specter said he considers Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate Winners and losers from the .3T omnibus Senators introduced revised version of election cyber bill MORE and Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) his closest friends on the Republican side of the aisle.

Among Democrats, he counts Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyMcCabe oversaw criminal probe into Sessions over testimony on Russian contacts: report Graham calls for Senate Judiciary hearing on McCabe firing McCabe firing roils Washington MORE (D-Vt.) and Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Trump should require federal contractors to follow the law Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate MORE (D-Iowa), with whom he has served for years on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees, his closest partners.

In recent months, Specter said he has begun working closely with Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph Durbin'Dreamers' fix blocked in Senate GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone Water has experienced a decade of bipartisan success MORE (Ill.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter Conscience protections for health-care providers should be standard Pension committee must deliver on retirement promise MORE (N.Y.), the No. 3 member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

He also considers Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a longtime Senate aide, as someone who has been “a friend for years.”

Specter gave Democrats control of 59 seats — which later became 60 when Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMcCabe oversaw criminal probe into Sessions over testimony on Russian contacts: report Academy president accused of sexual harassment: report Top Nike executive resigns amid workplace complaints: report MORE (D-Minn.) was declared the winner of his contested race. This would prove decisive in passing healthcare reform.

In return, Specter asked for President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge orders Walker to hold special elections Mueller investigates, Peters quits Fox, White House leaks abound 2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives MORE, Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenWhite House would like to see Biden ‘in the boxing ring’ in 2020 Pence: I'd pick Trump over Biden in a fight John Dowd’s resignation sets Trump up for trouble in Mueller probe MORE and other Democratic leaders to support his reelection.

Obama has already attended a fundraiser for Specter in Philadelphia and Biden has raised money for him in Pittsburgh.

Specter considers giving Democrats the 60th vote on healthcare reform his greatest achievement since joining the party.

Behind the scenes, he has become a leading advocate for labor legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, a high priority of unions.

“He’s a very effective negotiator,” said Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. “He played a very helpful role, as I understand it, in the internal conversations of the Democratic caucus on the Employee Free Choice Act and helped move it forward with a number of moderates.”

Specter’s work earned him the endorsement of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, a valuable imprimatur in Democratic primaries. He won the endorsement with 79 percent of the union’s vote, which aides points to as a sign that he is winning acceptance among the Democratic rank and file. The union was a key backer for Specter during his 2004 reelection campaign, when he was still a Republican.

The rest of the Democratic establishment in Pennsylvania, including Gov. Ed Rendell, is supporting Specter.

More than 300 Democratic state party officials, including Reps. Chaka Fattah and Tim Holden, former Reps. Ron Klink and Frank Mascara and state party chairman T.J. Rooney, have endorsed Specter’s campaign.

“I visited all 67 Democratic organizations through the state,” said Specter, who turned 80 years old last month.

Seventy-seven percent of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee voted to endorse Specter, 10 points more than the two-thirds support he needed to win backing.

Sixty-seven percent of Democrats reported a favorable opinion of Specter, compared to 18 percent who rated him unfavorably, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

His Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), was rated favorably by 23 percent of Democrats. Seventy-three percent said they had not heard enough about him to form an opinion.

But Dan Hirschhorn, editor of, a website that tracks Pennsylvania politics, said: “A lot of people are counting out Sestak way too early.” The primary is May 18.

Democratic strategists say that Specter became a more reliable vote for the party after Sestak announced his challenge.

Sestak’s spokesman charged that Specter embraced Obama’s agenda only out of political convenience.

“It’s pretty clear that Specter was moved by Sestak’s intention of getting in the race,” said Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin. “Before Sestak said he was challenging him, Specter came out against the public option.”

When he switched parties, Specter announced that he would not change his position against advancing the Employee Free Choice Act. He has since negotiated to produce a compromise but is seen by labor sources as much more supportive of the legislation.

Chris Nicholas, Specter’s campaign manager, shot back by accusing Sestak’s campaign of first accusing “Specter for not being Democratic enough; now they’re accusing him for being too Democratic.”

Nicholas said that Specter has supported Democrats on important issues such as the stimulus and healthcare reform and maintained his independence on other issues. He noted that Specter split with Obama over the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

Still, Specter has become more of an ardent Democrat than many colleagues expected when he announced his party switch last year.

“I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture,” Specter declared on April 28 of last year.

Some political observers chuckle over that statement a year later.

“He’s more of an Obama Democrat than Obama,” said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.