Home | Opinion | Columnists | Markos Moulitas

Jump ship, Specter

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (R) will be one of the most endangered senators in the 2010 cycle, heavily targeted not only by Democrats, but by radicals within his own party. Mired in a political no man’s land, his chances of electoral survival are slim. But there’s one way to improve his odds: Specter should switch parties.

This is a race that is already defying convention. By providing a rare GOP vote for President Obama’s stimulus package, Specter raised the ire of the dominant conservative wing of his state’s Republican Party. And he may be poised to cross an even starker line if he reprises his pro-labor vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA); in 2007, he was the only Republican to cross lines and vote for a bill that would reinvigorate the American labor movement and present tough electoral challenges for the GOP in future elections. EFCA is a headache the downtrodden GOP can scarcely afford, and the party will undoubtedly fight it as if its survival depends on it — because it likely does.

ADVERTISEMENT
Already, Specter’s refusal to join his colleagues in vocal opposition to EFCA has earned him a likely challenge from Club for Growth President and former Rep. Pat Toomey. Toomey, who came within 1.6 percentage points of ousting Specter in a 2004 primary, had bowed out of a rematch earlier this year. Yet he is already reconsidering his decision.

On the other hand, the reliably Democratic labor movement has openly declared 2010 support for Specter if the embattled senator delivers them his vote. “Given that this is labor’s No. 1 priority, it is very likely that the state AFL-CIO in any state, which is where endorsements are made, would stick by any senator, Democrat or Republican, who supports the Employee Free Choice Act,” said a spokesman for the federation. SEIU has followed suit. Given that Pennsylvania has 800,000 union members, the fourth-largest labor workforce in the country, they would be invaluable to Specter’s reelection chances in a general election. But in a Republican primary?

Approximately 239,000 centrist Pennsylvania Republicans changed their party registrations to the Democratic Party just last year, and the state’s closed primary system won’t permit them to cast their usual votes for Specter. Given his narrow 17,000-vote victory in the 2004 primary, the loss of those Republicans is deadly, and the remaining Republicans are heavily concentrated in Toomey strongholds. It’s hard to see how Specter could survive a Republican primary, where progressive unions hold little sway.

On the other hand, things look up significantly if Specter switches parties. Labor’s backing in a Democratic primary would be significant, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has already promised support to the incumbent senator should he defect. No other Democrat would stand much of a chance against that kind of muscle. And having survived the Democratic primary, Specter would likely coast to victory against Toomey, or any other Republican, in the general election.

Rendell claimed Monday that Specter had rebuffed entreaties from him, fellow Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Vice President Biden to switch parties. That may be true, but in politics, nothing is final until the filing deadline. And unless Specter reverses course on EFCA (which would do little at this point to help him in a primary), his vote will be met with a fierce barrage from the hardcore conservatives now running the GOP  —  from Rush Limbaugh on down.

Specter’s wisest course is clear — vote for EFCA as a Republican, giving Obama some of that “bipartisan” veneer the president craves, and then blame the inevitable GOP backlash for driving him into the arms of Harry Reid.



Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos
(www.dailykos.com).