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 ClintonBill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) Giuliani picks Abe Lincoln filter for attack against McAuliffe 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 CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas), Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE (R-Ala.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress McCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral Mayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing 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 LeahyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised On The Money — Democrats tee up Senate spending battles with GOP MORE (D-Vt.) and Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinFCC needs to help services for the deaf catch up to videoconferencing tech Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa 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 DurbinDick DurbinManchin: Negotiators to miss Friday target for deal on reconciliation bill Democrats look for plan B on filibuster The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats MORE (Ill.) and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Guns Down America's leader says Biden 'has simply not done enough' on gun control 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 FrankenFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame 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 ObamaGlasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal Obama gives fiery speech for McAuliffe: 'Don't sit this one out' Obama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe MORE, Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal 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 pa2010.com, 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.