Sen. Arlen Specter was in good spirits Monday while speaking to the chamber of commerce in Lancaster, Pa. Talking about his middle-of-the-road place in American politics, he joked, "When you're in the center -- I was about to say 'dead center,' but that sounds ominous. I don't mind being in the center, I just don't want to be dead in the center."
That's exactly what Specter hopes to avoid by switching parties, bolting the GOP after 43 years (29 of them in the Senate) and likely giving Democrats the magical 60th vote they need to help avoid filibusters (assuming that Al Franken pulls it out, eventually, in Minnesota).
For Pat Toomey, victory always seemed secondary to his desire for a platform upon which to build his party's conservative base.
For Specter, the decision was a simple game of survival; recent polls have shown him trailing conservative Pat Toomey, badly, in a Republican primary. Within Senate GOP ranks, Specter was increasingly isolated. Despite recent protestations to the contrary, he saw the writing on the wall.
"I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said Tuesday in a statement. "I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania."
Last year, as he noted, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania became Democrats. "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," he said.
What's unclear now is how the "people of Pennsylvania" will respond -- specifically those increasingly emboldened Democrats, for whom targeting Specter every six years had become a hapless game of Charlie Brown football.
All eyes now turn quickly to Gov. Ed Rendell, the state's most popular Democrat and a longtime friend of Specter's. Rendell had offered lukewarm support to the only Democrat who had announced before Tuesday, former National Constitution Center head Joe Torsella; the measly $500 check the governor wrote him last month could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement or, just as likely, a plea for someone else to join the field. With Specter running for the Democratic nomination (wow, it feels weird writing that), Rendell's support will be even more aggressively sought. Already, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have embraced Specter. (For his part, Torsella said Tuesday that he'll stay in the race. With Specter saying he still won't back "card check" as a Democrat, the primary could force organized labor into a tough spot).
Also, what's next for Toomey? The former Club for Growth president's most realistic road to victory had winded through a GOP primary in which he generated a huge turnout of conservatives to defeat the five-term incumbent. With Specter out of that race, Toomey has the GOP field to himself. But he may find it increasingly difficult to sound the alarm, and raise funds, among conservatives if they know Toomey still could face Specter in a general election campaign.
On the other hand, victory always seemed secondary to Toomey's desire for a platform upon which to build his party's conservative base. Does a likely face-off against Specter next fall, when more voters are paying attention, make the race more appealing, even if the outcome for Toomey is near-certain defeat? He may not get to make this decision in a vacuum; GOP strategists on Tuesday were urging Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Specter-like moderate who would make a more electable nominee next fall, to reconsider his decision not to run for Senate in 2010.
Republicans put on a brave face Tuesday after Specter's switch. "Get ready to go to the mat, baby, because we're coming after you and taking you out," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told the senator Tuesday via CNN.
Nevertheless, Specter's decision is another blow to a party still scrambling to refute charges that the past two elections have reduced its influence to regional power centers. To change that storyline, the Republicans need to, among other things, start winning races in states Obama carried last fall. Their chances look good in gubernatorial races this year in New Jersey and Virginia. Meanwhile, they need to recruit strong Senate candidates in Florida and Illinois, where top GOP candidates are still waiting in the wings. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said he'll announce his decision next week; Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois is expected to do so soon.
Time to get moving, gentlemen. Your party's waiting for you. And they're running out of time.