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Legacy Content / ON THE TRAIL

Specter Looking For Solid Ground

In Pennsylvania, The Senator Is Caught Between A Lukewarm GOP And A Surging Democratic Party

February 18, 2009

For all the talk these last few days about the "death" of post-partisanship, there could actually be a real-life political casualty tied to President Obama's Republican outreach: Sen. Arlen Specter. If he loses his primary to a more right-leaning opponent next year, it'll be harder than ever for Obama and congressional Democrats to convince even moderate Republicans of the benefits of bipartisanship.

In the Senate's stimulus battle this month, Specter crossed the aisle on 10 out of 23 party-line roll call votes -- third behind Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe -- and joined the two Maine moderates as the only three GOP votes for the finished package. That won him praise from Obama and liberal supporters of the stimulus, which is not a bad thing in a state as blue as Pennsylvania. But it's not a good thing in a GOP primary, especially in a state with a closed primary -- which means no crossover help from sympathetic Democrats -- and a shrinking base of registered Republicans.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by over 1.2 million. Just a couple years ago, the gap was less than half that (550,000). Just as the House GOP conference has become more conservative as its ranks have been winnowed, so too has the Republican voting population become more rightward-leaning as its membership has shrunk.

 

A poll taken by Muhlenberg College of 400 Pennsylvania voters who switched their party registration status from Republican to Democrat during 2007 and 2008 paints a pretty bleak picture for Specter. These voters are more likely to be well-educated, affluent and supportive of abortion rights: in other words, Specter voters.

The latest Quinnipiac poll, conducted Feb. 4-9, showed Specter getting higher job approval ratings from Dems (62 percent) than Republicans (55 percent). Compare that to a Quinnipiac poll taken Feb. 12-18, 2003: Specter had a 61 percent favorability rating among Republicans and 63 percent among Democrats. Republicans today are no more enthusiastic about sending Specter back to Washington than Democrats. Forty-two percent of Republicans say he deserves re-election, while 42 percent do not support his re-election. Among Democrats, it's almost identical -- 41 percent for and 42 percent against. Among independents, just 36 percent say they think Specter deserves re-election.

The good news for Specter is that the GOP bench in Pennsylvania is pretty thin. His toughest potential opponent, Pat Toomey, has said he's looking at running for governor. Toomey, a former representative and current president of the conservative Club for Growth, narrowly lost to Specter in the 2004 primary, 51 percent to 49 percent. Other potential candidates are retreads -- such as Peg Luksik, a three-time gubernatorial candidate who's best known as an anti-abortion activist -- or they are untested, like Pittsburgh-based multimillionaire radio host Glen Meakem. Plus, Specter's got lots of cash (almost $6 million) to fend off the attacks.

Even if a serious primary candidate doesn't emerge, Specter's no shoo-in for the general, either. A decade of registration efforts by state and national Democratic candidates in the Philadelphia suburbs (Specter's base) have effectively flipped those former GOP strongholds Democratic. And those voters aren't coming back.

For example, Al Gore carried Montgomery County in 2000 with 54 percent. Eight years later, Obama carried it by 60 percent. Republican Sen. Rick Santorum also carried Montgomery County in '00 with 54 percent. Six years later, he took just 38 percent of the vote there. Specter, of course, is not nearly as conservative as Santorum and will certainly outperform him in these Philadelphia-area counties. Yet will these voters who have become increasingly identified with the Democratic Party over the years see any need to keep picking a Republican, even one who identifies as a moderate and a "maverick"? Why not just vote for a Democrat who will work with the president all the time, instead of sporadically?

Thus far, only one Democrat has officially entered the race, former National Constitution Center president and current State Board of Education Chairman Joe Torsella. A slew of other Democratic officeholders, including suburban Philly dwellers Rep. Patrick Murphy and state Rep. Josh Shapiro, are looking at it.

In Maine last year, Collins faced similar circumstances and not only survived, but crushed her Democratic opponent by 22 percentage points. In Maine, however, voters can have a more personal connection to their politicians than they can in a larger state with more expensive media markets. It's also important to remember that Collins was running for a third term, while Specter's going for his sixth. "Change" beat the "Maverick" in '08. Will this be true in '10 as well?

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