One Year After Switching Parties: How Is Arlen Specter Doing

Lauren Victoria Burke

Today is the one-year anniversary of when Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) switched to the Democratic Party, after 28 previous years as a Republican Senator. And this has become one of the most interesting races of the cycle — starting with a Republican Senator in danger of losing his primary, then him becoming a Democrat in order to avoid that fate, and now lingering in a state of political peril similar to the rest of his newfound party in this cycle.

Until last fall, Specter narrowly led Toomey in the polls. But the drag on Democratic fortunes since the fall has taken a toll on Specter just as it has for other Dems. The TPM Poll Average shows him trailing his long-time Republican nemesis Toomey by a margin of 45.2%-39.6%. On the bright side for him, he leads Sestak in the Democratic primary by a margin of 45.0%-29.8%. The primary is three weeks away, and TV ads have just begun running in heavy amounts.

For today’s anniversary, Toomey’s campaign has marked the occasion by promoting a money-bomb fundraiser, with a goal of raising $280,000 today. As of this writing, they slightly over $150,000.Specter was first elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980, and served as a moderate, socially liberal GOPer. He was challenged from the right for the GOP nomination in 2004 by then-Rep. Pat Toomey, and won by only a 51%-49% margin. Specter’s support among Republicans fell in 2009, after he provided a crucial vote to pass President Obama’s stimulus package. Toomey then jumped into the race again, and Specter subsequently switched parties when polls showed he would the rematch.

Specter was then immediately endorsed by President Obama, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (an old friend, who was hired many years ago by then-Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter), and the Democratic leadership in Washington who had been courting him to switch. Nevertheless, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak soon began laying the groundwork to challenge Specter in the Dem primary. Sestak officially launched his campaign last August, though the incumbent Specter continues to lead.

Specter campaign spokesperson Christopher Nicholas pointed to all that Specter has done as a Democrat. “There have been a lot of accomplishments this year,” said Nicholas. “The health care legislation, the HIRE Act, the first Latina Supreme Court justice, plus obviously doing all he can for job creation in Pennsylvania.”

Toomey spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik, who was just getting ready to join the campaign a year ago when the news broke about Specter, told TPMDC how surprised she was. “I guess I was stunned, I was a little bit jealous that I was missing all the action. I really wanted to be up here,” said Soloveichik. “When it first started to break out on Twitter, your reaction is like, ‘What? Is that true? Is that a rumor?'”

Soloveichik accused Specter of political opportunism, and said that his party switch has in a way boosted the GOP. “Arlen Specter has definitely energized a lot of Republicans, and turned off a bunch of independents and even some Democrats,” said Soloveichik. She explained: “I don’t think he was very well liked before he switched, by a lot of Republicans, obviously. That was evident in 2004 and then continually, but he’s much less well liked even now. obviously a lot of Republicans were very angry. There were a lot of Republicans who supported him over Pat in 2004. To them, this was a betrayal, and not a betrayal based on principle, but on his own opportunism. It’s understandable that a lot of people would be disappointed.”

The Toomey campaign’s message, calling Specter an opportunist, is also shared by the Sestak campaign, in their challenge to Specter in his new party’s primary. Said Sestak spokesman Jonathan Dworkin noted that Specter had initially opposed such proposals as the health care public option or repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, but has moved left. “He switched parties because he said his chances in the Republican primary were weak,” said Dworkin. “And then he switched because he was facing a Democratic challenge.”

A Democratic source told us that Specter has done a lot to win over Democrats: “Certainly there was some degree of skepticism initially, but, Sen. Specter did a tremendous job reaching out to Democrats across the Commonwealth – many of whom had supported him even before his party switch.”

The state Democratic Party committee endorsed Specter in February, giving him 77% of the vote in a motion that required a two-third majority to pass.

Specter campaign spokesman Christopher Nicholas also pointed to Specter’s progress in the Democratic Party. “I think at the beginning there was skepticism, but that has worn off and really changed the other way,” said Nicholas. He pointed to Specter’s endorsement by the state party, and also by the AFL-CIO and various member labor unions, as examples of how Specter has become comfortable in his new partisan home.

We asked Nicholas for a response to the allegations from Specter’s challengers, who have claimed that Specter changed his positions for political reasons.

“As the Senator said, he joined the Democratic Party when he voted for the Economic Recovery Act, and then he joined it for real a couple months later,” said Nicholas. “And he will continue to work to deliver for Pennsylvania. The bottom line here is that the Senator put his job on the line by voting for the Recovery Act, because he thought it would keep the country of a 1929-like depression, and I think he’s been proven correct on that. So he put his job on the line to save others’ jobs, and that’s not something Congressman Sestak or Mr. Toomey can say.”