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Specter switches parties to win reelection

As the Republican Party shifted to the right, his chances of winning a 2010 primary were 'bleak,' he says.

By Staff writer / April 29, 2009

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania rides the Capitol subway on his way to a press conference to announce his decision to switch parties – from Republican to Democrat – on Tuesday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Washington

The prospects for Sen. Arlen Specter as a Republican were grim.

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But as a Democrat – solidly backed by President Obama and a Pennsylvania icon, Gov. Edward Rendell – he’s on track for a sixth term in the US Senate.

That’s the simple calculus, readily admitted, behind Senator Specter’s decision to break with the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats.

Public polls showed that Specter had the support of only 30 percent of likely GOP voters in the 2010 primary. At least 180,000 party moderates – his core supporters – switched parties in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama.

In a press briefing Tuesday, Specter described his prospects for reelection as a Republican as “bleak.” “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” he said.

A maverick Republican

During his years in the Senate, Specter had plenty of opportunity to rile GOP voters and colleagues with his votes in favor of abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, and social spending. He also angered conservatives with his role in the 1987 defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. More recently, he blasted “executive branch excesses” during the Bush years in an April 16 essay in The New York Review of Books.

The essay ends with this note: “I doubt that the Democratic majority, which was so eager to decry expansions of executive authority under President Bush, will still be as interested in the problem with a Democratic president in office. I will continue the fight whatever happens.”

But he went too far for GOP conservatives with his Feb. 13 vote for Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package.

“The stimulus vote just energized conservatives in the state against him,” says pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“That picture of Specter with Obama at the White House was played over and over in our state. Republican activists looked at him and said: 'He’s not one of us,'” Professor Madonna added.

Specter’s move marks the second GOP defection that Senate majority leader Harry Reid has helped engineer.

As deputy Democratic leader in 2001, Senator Reid gave up his own chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to help leverage the defection of then-GOP Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont. That shift gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Talks with Specter had been going on for years, Reid told reporters Tuesday. “I had a long dialogue with Senator Specter about his place in the evolving Republican Party,” he said.

The 60th vote?