Specter — Last of His Kind?

Arlen Specter may be a dinosaur. The senior United States Senator from Pennsylvania, one of only four Northeastern Republican senators, will soon become the only Jewish Republican Senator when Norm Coleman concedes the battle for Minnesota, and one of the few Republican moderates in a position of power. He is not yet ready to become extinct, but what he must do to win re-election in 2010 speaks volumes about the difficult situation the Republican Party is in today.

A former district attorney in Philadelphia, Specter was first elected to the Senate in 1980. During his five terms, his record as an influential moderate has shown him to be a friend both of labor and business.

As the Republican Party moved right in the Bush-Cheney years, Specter’s position became perilous. In 2004, he was nearly upended in the Republican primary by Pat Toomey, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth. He survived because of an odd confluence of support in the primary from the Bush White House and conservative fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who feared losing the seat to the Democrats if Toomey were the nominee, and in the general election the AFL-CIO, which rewarded his pro-labor record by backing Specter against Democrat Joe Hoeffel. Specter is close to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who pointedly refrained from using his political organization to help Hoeffel. Even so, Specter barely squeaked by in the conservative Republican primary, winning by around 17,000 votes, and then handily won the general election.

Republicans have lost ground in Pennsylvania since 2004. In the Democratic wave of 2006, Santorum was defeated for re-election by Bob Casey Jr. by the largest margin of any incumbent senator since 1980. But the biggest shift of all came between 2006 and 2008, as Democratic support surged and the dynamic Clinton-Obama primary generated excitement.

In the Democratic primary of 2008, nearly 200,000 Republicans re-registered as Democrats. While some were trying to “game” the Democratic primary as urged by Rush Limbaugh, many were moderates moving away from the party. By November, the Democratic share of registration had gone from 47 percent in 2004 to more than 50 percent. Republicans, meanwhile, fell from 40 percent to 37 percent. There were more than 400,000 more Democrats in the electorate than four years before, and 150,000 fewer Republicans, a net swing of more than 550,000 voters.  Clearly this also means a more conservative Republican primary electorate.

In 2008, John McCain’s last gasp was Pennsylvania. His campaign poured resources into the Keystone State in the final weeks, hoping to break through Obama’s solid blue wall. It was a rational choice, the best and only one available, but it was doomed. The race for Pennsylvania had been close in 2004 (a 2.2 percent margin for Kerry), but Obama beat McCain 55 percent to 44 percent.

As the Northeast becomes more and more Democratic, moderate Republicans have a nearly impossible task. Those who support President Obama risk losing their next primary election with a narrower, more conservative party base. If they oppose the president, they may lose the general election. A similar conundrum did in Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island in 2006, and the bull’s-eye is now pointing at Specter.

Early in the year, Toomey announced that he would not challenge Specter in 2010. Freed from that threat, Specter provided the key swing vote for Obama’s economic stimulus plan (along with two safer Republican moderates from Maine — Snowe and Collins). Feeling rather confident, Specter told reporters that other Republicans liked the plan, but feared a primary challenge. But the stimulus vote became a cause for the Republican base, and soon Toomey began to rev up the engines for another go at Specter. Now Specter had a choice to make: Should he support or oppose the key labor bill, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)?

A report emerged that the AFL-CIO had promised to support Specter in 2010 if he backed EFCA. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid openly speculated that it would be wise for Specter to cross the aisle and become a Democrat. Specter, however, calculated that he could still win a Republican primary and therefore announced his opposition, even though he had been a co-sponsor of the bill in 2007.

Specter outraged his labor backers, but perhaps mollified his business base enough to either force Toomey out of the race, or to dry up his support. He still has the option to forge a compromise bill acceptable to business, thereby easing labor anger. With several key Democrats now opposing the bill as written, he has cover from labor backlash. He has made clear to the Republican Party leadership that unless he wins, there will be another Democrat there, and with Al Franken of Minnesota, that would give the Democrats 60 seats. When RNC chair Michael Steele threatened to “primary” the three stimulus backers, Republican congressional leaders backed him off immediately. The 79-year-old Specter could even threaten to not run at all, throwing fear into the Republican and business leadership.

Specter has to hope that his business base and the Republican leadership will clear the way for him in the face of grass-roots conservative opposition. A recent Quinnipiac poll of Republicans found that a majority of Democrats approved of Specter, while a majority of Republicans disapproved. Toomey already has Joe the Plumber (can Sarah Palin be far behind?), but there are still plenty of Pennsylvania Republicans who will grudgingly vote for him in the primary and willingly in the general against a Democrat.

And yet he cannot give too much to the right wing if he wishes to win a general election. This is where Specter’s ability to speak one way and then vote the other — shown time and again — may allow him to create enough confusion to avoid being a clear target. Vote after vote will be coming up in the Senate, and Specter’s choice will be pivotal. He will have to persuade the party base that only he can prevent a total Democratic takeover, while reassuring Democrats that he will not block progress if he is re-elected. Don’t feel too sorry for Specter, though. He loves the limelight and seems to enjoy being at the strategic center.

Specter still has several routes to surviving a primary. The first is to use his massive financial advantage to go on the attack right now. He is already on the air with an effective television ad tying former Congressman Toomey to Wall Street and his votes for deregulation. Maybe Toomey will decide not to run. Or Specter could campaign all year, and if the primary looks bleak, he can still become a Democrat. Or if Toomey is weakened another conservative or two could enter the race, allowing the incumbent to win a narrow plurality. And if he wins the primary, he would be free to tack back to the left to placate Democratic voters. He does not have the Leiberman option, though, of running as an independent if he loses the Republican primary because Pennsylvania has a “sore loser” law.

It might just be enough, but while he may survive, the breed is nearly extinct. He may be one of the very last of the Jewish moderate Republicans. And if he loses and Coleman goes, then the only Jewish Republican left in either branch of Congress will be Eric Cantor, the conservative from Virginia.

The Republican Party makes life impossible for its moderates at its own peril. The Republicans have now lost the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. The Southwest is trending Democratic. The Rocky Mountain states are in play.  The outer South is competitive. The leading 2012 Republican presidential contenders are making their names in the party by threatening to turn down popular economic stimulus money during a recession. Meanwhile, the types of Republicans who can speak to voters in big industrial states with diverse populations with larger Jewish populations such as California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois — the species that was as plentiful as the buffalo 40 years ago — are relegated to the back benches to be called on when their votes are needed. Republicans will miss them when they are gone.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.