The Specter of defeat

Last week, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (R) became the first casualty of the 2010 election cycle. Sure, he still has almost two years left to serve, and yes, voters must wait until next year to make it official, but the writing is on the wall. His defeat is inevitable.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Specter, a longtime backer of organized labor in a state with a large and powerful union presence, was assumed to be an important Republican defection on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) just a few weeks ago. Conservatives were outraged, of course, but it seemed a good bet — his state is trending heavily blue, with 239,000 Republicans switching to the Democratic Party in 2008 alone. With his history of winning significant crossover Democratic support, Specter seemed fully aligned with his constituents.

 His 2004 intra-party tormentor, Club for Growth President and former Rep. Pat Toomey, initially opted out of a rematch. But Specter’s EFCA support and anemic poll numbers seem too much for Toomey to resist, and he’s crept ever closer to a rematch for a primary that is just 11 months away.

Did I say Specter’s poll numbers were “anemic”? I should’ve said “catastrophic.” A Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 19-23 had Toomey leading Specter 41-27 percent among Republicans. To compare, Quinnipiac had Specter leading Toomey 52-37 in early April 2004, about four weeks before Toomey came within 1.6 percent of a major upset — and that was with the entire conservative apparatus and its most prominent voices, including President George W. Bush and hyper-conservative Sen. Rick Santorum, backing Specter. Bush and Santorum are now gone and discredited, while the rest of the conservative machine has no use for Specter — after all, the GOP base believes it is losing elections because Republicans aren’t conservative enough.

Pennsylvania’s primaries are closed, so the 239,000 defectors suddenly loom large —Specter survived his 2004 primary by just 17,000 votes. No longer Republicans, those likely Specter voters are shut out of the primary.

But Specter had an ace in the hole. He could switch parties and intensify the already enthusiastic support of organized labor, while earning the support of Gov. Ed Rendell and his political machine. The Democratic primary would be cleared of any serious candidates, and in a general election versus Toomey, Specter would walk to a blowout. A tough choice, but a winner’s choice.

Instead, Specter decided to flip his EFCA vote to “no” in the hope that it would earn him a reprieve from his right flank, but the hard right is not a forgiving bunch.

“Specter enjoys being the center of attention,” snorted former Rep. Ernest Istook, chairman of an anti-EFCA group. “There has probably been more money spent to influence his vote on this issue than on any other vote, from any other senator, at any other time. He wants to continue enjoying the attention and the fundraising opportunity.” The anti-union National Right to Work Committee issued a statement that tepidly proclaimed, “While we certainly welcome Sen. Specter’s reconsideration of his past support for Big Labor’s number one legislative goal, it should be met with some skepticism.” Toomey himself dismissed his opponent’s EFCA switch as an unprincipled reaction to “a threat in the Republican primary,” while redirecting fire to Specter’s stimulus vote.

Specter’s chances in his primary are just about nil. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that he survives, he will face an increasingly progressive general electorate and an energized labor movement out for revenge.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

Either way, Specter’s going to get burned.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (