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 ClintonTrump’s first year in office was the year of the woman Can a president be impeached for non-criminal conduct? Dems search for winning playbook 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 CornynMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Hoyer suggests Dems won't support spending bill without DACA fix MORE (R-Texas), Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants DOJ wades into archdiocese fight for ads on DC buses Overnight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector MORE (R-Ala.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House 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 CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals 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 LeahyNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle McConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Nielsen acknowledges Trump used 'tough language' in immigration meeting MORE (D-Vt.) and Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinOrrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 DurbinMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Ex-Sheriff David Clarke: Trump only one who 'cares about black American citizens' DHS chief takes heat over Trump furor MORE (Ill.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting 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 FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath 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 ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE, Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump thinks he could easily beat Sanders in 2020 match-up: report Biden marks MLK Day: Americans are 'living through a battle for the soul of this nation' 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.