The question of whether the party can stage a revival without welcoming Northeastern moderates came to the fore on television talk shows Sunday morning.
Appearing later on the same show, some Republican figures essentially agreed with that assessment, even while they did not endorse all of Specter's remarks.
Joe Scarborough, a conservative commentator and former Republican congressman from Florida, said the party needs to take a page from Democrats, who have become more competitive in some hard-to-win districts by recruiting candidates who don’t toe the party line on issues such as gun control or abortion.
Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, threw some weight behind this view, commenting that the most important vote that a lawmaker in Congress makes is the one that determines which party sets the agenda in the House or Senate.
The Republicans did not distance themselves from conservatism. But the fallout from the loss of Specter suggests that the lack of moderate lawmakers in the Republican Party will be under scrutiny as a potential part of the GOP's comeback agenda.
In an effort to cast the GOP as a more inclusive party, three prominent Republicans – House minority whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, and former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts – held a forum in suburban Virginia Saturday that they dubbed part of a "listening tour." It was the first event held by the newly formed National Council for a New America.
In his TV appearances on NBC and CBS, Specter argued against critics who characterize him as a defector and tried to put the focus instead on problems with the party.
He accused the group, a financially influential voice for conservative ideology, of playing a significant role in an effort to purify the party’s ranks. The club has funded primary-election challengers to moderate officeholders within the party, he said, even though the new candidates will not be able to win the general-election vote.
While that’s not the only factor behind the decline of moderates, Republicans of all stripes are now looking at a worrisome trend: The party no longer holds any House seats from New England.
Specter said he faced the prospect of a primary challenge that he would not be able to win after he helped pass President Obama's large economic stimulus measure.
He rejected the view that his switch represented political opportunism for his own career. “There's more than being reelected here,” he said. “There's a factor of principle.”
He said his stimulus vote was the right thing for the country – helping to avert a possible economic depression – but that he knew it was “perhaps disastrous” politically.
“My approval rating dropped 30 points with Republicans,” he said.
He cast himself as someone who has always been independent in his voting patterns, and the party as having “gone far to the right since I joined it under [President] Reagan’s big tent.”
As for colleagues in his new party, he warned them that he will not be a “loyal Democrat.”
The debate over Specter, and his public response to critics, came as the nation mourned a former vice presidential nominee for the GOP: Jack Kemp, who died Saturday.
Like Ronald Reagan, whom he served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, former congressman Kemp came to symbolize a blending of conservative views with a big-tent vision for party membership.
The party is now wrestling with whether there’s a 21st-century recipe for that strain of conservative thought. The question of a welcome mat for moderates would be one piece of that puzzle.