Today's stunning decision by Sen. Arlen Specter to switch his affiliation from Republican to Democratic has shaken up Pennsylvania's two 2010 Senate primaries as well as the general election, state political observers said in the wake of Specter's announcement.
Specter had been facing a tough and likely bitter rematch against former Rep. Pat Toomey for the GOP nomination, with Toomey, a staunch conservative, attacking the moderate Specter aggressively from the right. Specter's sudden switch opens the field for more Republicans to challenge Toomey in the primary, while likely clearing the Democratic field for the five-term incumbent.
"In terms of Pennsylvania politics, this is seismic," said John Micek, state government reporter for the Allentown Morning Call.
Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler said that grassroots Republicans who flocked to Toomey "forced Specter into this box. He has seen the public numbers and the private numbers, and he knew that he just couldn't win a primary election. He also realized how many Republicans flipped to Democratic over the past few years."
On the GOP side, one name drawing informed speculation in the wake of Specter's announcement is Rep. Jim Gerlach, a four-term moderate from southeastern Pennsylvania. Gerlach had been aiming to run for governor in 2010, but several sources said they have reason to believe he might switch to the Senate race.
One Republican source in Pennsylvania added that GOP players are already pushing state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who also serves as lieutenant governor, to run for the Senate seat.
"People will take another look at the race," said Ray Zaborney, a GOP consultant who ran the campaign of 2006 gubernatorial nominee Lynn Swann. "I don't expect Toomey to be the only one in. It's easy to be the frontrunner when only two candidates are in the race. The question is, what does he do from here?"
Some suggested that the early grassroots support for Toomey, while daunting for any challenger, would not necessarily be decisive. David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennslvania Business Council, drew a distinction between GOP primary voters and GOP primary funders.
"There are certainly some [of the latter] for whom Toomey might be too conservative on certain issues," Patti said.
Arguably the key challenge for any Republican, several sources said, is how to position oneself in the primary. The GOP base that is assumed to be dominant in the primary balloting had clearly been indicating its preference for the hard-line Toomey over the moderate Specter. This suggests that a centrist such as Gerlach would face an uphill battle.
"If there was room for a moderate Republican in the primary, there would still be one," Micek said.
On the other hand, it would be hard for any Republican to out-conservative Toomey in the primary and still have a chance of winning the general election, sources in the state said.
"The challenge is to pick up the map that Swann and [unsuccessful 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee Mike] Fisher confronted and ask, 'How do I make this look different?'" Zaborney said. Specter, he said, will likely compete in the same relatively compact portion of the Keystone State as Gov. Ed Rendell (D) did twice. Rendell won the governorship both times. "The question is, how does Toomey do better?" Zaborney said.
A more moderate Republican candidate would likely have to argue their case on pragmatic grounds -- that only someone modestly to the right of Specter would have a chance of winning the general election.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, political observers today said that they expect Specter to clear the primary field, at least of serious, mainstream contenders. Not only is he a political legend in the state who has always drawn a significant number of crossover votes from Democrats, but most also assume that he coordinated his decision with Rendell, who by virtue of his position as both a state and national Democratic fundraising powerhouse would be able to clamp down on any challengers' access to money.
The two Democrats who had gone the furthest in putting together candidacies while Specter was a Republican were National Constitution Center CEO Joseph Torsella and state Rep. Josh Shapiro. Despite the state's growing Democratic lean in recent years, either would have been considered an underdog against Specter running as a Republican. Other Democratic House members whose names were periodically floated include Reps. Allyson Schwartz, Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy, though none had taken serious steps toward running.
If the general election does feature Specter against Toomey, most observers in Pennsylvania say that Specter would be the favorite, although most say that Toomey will run a credible race, especially if the nation sours on Democratic control of the White House and Congress during the economic downturn.
"There are as many blue-collar Democrats who are as upset about the stimulus plan as conservative Republicans," Zaborney said, referring to the massive spending plan drawn up by President Obama and approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress -- with the help of a tiny sliver of Senate Republicans, including Specter.
But even if economic arguments resonate for Toomey, a staunch tax-cutter and supply-sider, social issues would be a heavy burden for him, some said.
"Once he starts talking about social issues" in populous southeastern Pennsylvania, "both the Republican and Democratic electorates -- they're gone," Micek said.
Louis Jacobson is a contributing editor for National Journal magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.