A political earthquake shook the nation yesterday, quite possibly leading to a seismic shift in how America is governed. Despite several prior statements that he would not leave the Republican Party, thirty-year incumbent U.S. Senator Arlen Specter shocked the political establishment by joining the Democratic ranks.
Mr. Specter’s switch give the Democrats 59 votes in the senate, one shy of a filibuster-proof majority. While the still-undecided Minnesota senate race is the last piece in the puzzle, it seems increasingly likely that Democrat Al Franken will maintain his lead and become the D’s 60th senator.
The repercussions of Mr. Specter’s actions are significant.
Since the House of Representatives has a solid Democratic majority, the attainment of 60 votes in the senate could give Pres. Obama a blank check in advancing his political agenda. Controversial issues such as card check (the elimination of secret ballot in union elections), universal health care, tax increases and massive budgets would pass despite vehement Republican opposition, assuming the Democrats remain unified.
But that is never a sure thing, as few votes are "automatic," especially with Mr. Specter.
For example, Sen. Specter recently announced his opposition to card check legislation, and has stated he will remain true to that position, at least for the time being. But Mr. Specter switching parties doesn’t necessarily mean he will side with Democratic leadership on all their issues. Given his Republican leanings on certain issues, Mr. Specter may fall into the "Blue Dog" category, a term used to describe the senate’s more conservative Democrats.
An automatic vote for the Democrats will be as likely as Mr. Specter’s automatic votes were for the GOP – very rare.
GOP Outlook: Gerlach for Senate?
The field is already crowded with Republicans who were salivating at the chance to take on Mr. Specter, especially since he was one of only three Republicans to break ranks and vote for the Obama stimulus plan.
Former Congressman Pat Toomey, who narrowly lost to Mr. Specter in the 2004 primary, recently joined conservative activist Peg Luksik and western Pennsylvanian businessman Larry Murphy in the race.
Congressman Jim Gerlach of Montgomery and Chester counties, currently exploring a run for Pennsylvania’s open gubernatorial seat next year, is the wildcard to watch. Now that Mr. Specter is out of the GOP primary picture, Gerlach may join the fray. He is perceived as a moderate-to-conservative, mainstream Republican who has withstood tough election challenges, despite the horrendous climate Republicans endured in 2006 and 2008. His district is a microcosm of the state, with urban, rural, and suburban areas mixed in with significant business and agricultural interests. Having served in the state legislature for 12 years prior to becoming a congressman, Gerlach has a statewide base to augment his Washington connections.
Another factor why Mr. Gerlach’s prospects may be brighter in the senate race is that state Attorney General Tom Corbett is almost universally regarded as the hands-down favorite to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination. It will be immeasurably easier to compete in an open-primary for senate with no frontrunner, than attempt to defeat a perceived frontrunner with the momentum— and the headlines.
Mr. Specter’s switch will undoubtedly also have ripple effects on the GOP contenders. Each of them lost one of the most important tools in the primary-election playbook: a villain. Since Mr. Specter’s voting record was anathema to many conservative Republican voters, it translated into significant fundraising opportunities for his opponents. Now that the senator is no longer a punching bag for the conservatives, and the primary is more than a year away, look for a dwindling supply of campaign cash flowing into GOP coffers.
Since there is no anointed frontrunner in the GOP, the primary could become fierce.
Democratic Field: The Power of One
The only major candidate on the Democratic side was former Constitution CEO Joseph Torsella, who has raised an impressive $600,000 this year in his quest for the nomination. Despite Mr. Torsella’s statement that he still intends to compete against Mr. Specter in an intra-party battle, look for that situation to become rectified very quickly after the Torsella camp has an opportunity to save face.
Several factor are behind this analysis. First, Mr. Torsella’s fundraising efforts will completely evaporate. Arlen Specter is one of the most masterful fundraising politicians of all time, and would exert enormous pressure on donors to side with him, and only him, in the primary battle. Thirty years of Mr. Specter reaching across the aisle, combined with his $7 million war chest, make him just too powerful to oppose in this situation.
And should Mr. Torsella decide to pursue his run anyway, he would have to contend with a state and national party apparatus which is infinitely more powerful than it was in 2005, when it cleared the Democratic field for now-Senator Robert Casey.
Money and party power go a long, long way in national politics. Look for Mr. Torsella to make a graceful exit in the near future as he becomes a major powerbroker in the Democratic Party.
Specter’s Chances in November
While many Republicans are relieved at Mr. Specter’s exit from the GOP, the odds are that he will once again emerge victorious in the 2010 general election. Democrats now enjoy a 1.2 million voter edge in the state, and there are still a significant number of moderate Republicans who will vote for Mr. Specter. He will also have the unbridled support of Pres. Obama, who won Pennsylvania by 600,000 votes.
Those numbers are tough to overcome for any opponent, especially when the incumbent has built up so many political chits over the years. While there could certainly be an anti-Obama backlash in 2010, it will be a herculean task to defeat Mr. Specter, one of the most controversial, shrewdest, and never-say-die politicians in Pennsylvania history.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]