Arlen Specter's party switch haunts him in primary campaign

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- More than a year after making the most controversial move of his career and days before an election that could end his days in politics, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) is still explaining to voters why he left the Republican Party.

The epitome of a northeastern moderate, Specter sought refuge with Democrats in the face of a conservative uprising over his support for a massive economic stimulus package in 2009. Now, he's finding that the rank and file in his new party may be no more hospitable than those in the one he abandoned.

With many of his Republican colleagues taking heat from the right in their renomination battles, Specter is facing his own purity test, with skeptical Democrats far from sold on his conversion to their cause.

While the party switch appeared to many to be raw opportunism, it let Specter continue tapping 30 years of seniority to bring home federal money for this commonwealth. "I know a lot of people who are interested in keeping their jobs," Specter, 80, said Saturday morning in a speech at a union hall. "I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to keep your job. In fact, I find it hard as hell to keep all of your jobs."

The remark brought knowing laughs in this former steel capital, but it drove home the point that his primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, has used to slingshot into an apparent dead heat with Specter in advance of next Tuesday's primary. The contest is Specter's first as a Democrat, coming after the former prosecutor announced in late April 2009 that, because he could not win the Republican nomination, he would seek out a new "jury" to decide his political fate.

After months of holding double-digit leads in polls, Specter is now telling voters that he is "running scared." Sestak, 58, has poured more than $1.5 million into a two-week advertising buy touting his background as a former Navy vice admiral, raising his profile and allowing him to pull closer to the incumbent. He then aired a negative ad showing then-President George W. Bush holding Specter's hand and telling a Republican audience that "I can count on this man," just before Specter's narrow 2004 victory in the GOP primary against former congressman Patrick Toomey.

Now, some polls show Sestak as a slight favorite to face Toomey, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination. Specter has turned to President Obama to help blunt Sestak's momentum with radio and TV ads. Vice President Biden, who regularly rode Amtrak with Specter as they commuted to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., as Senate colleagues, has made campaign appearances on his behalf.

'A principled matter'

But Specter has found a leery reception from Democratic voters. In each stump speech Saturday as he traveled through western Pennsylvania, he began by recalling his move across the aisle a year ago, a switch that Democrats in Washington hailed as setting the party on a path to claim a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. Since the move, Specter has been steadfast in siding with the party on key legislation and nominations, but his standing at home has slid, along with the political prospects for Democrats nationwide.

Specter is now trying to recast the contest as a referendum on an act of courage.

"It is very tough in the Republican Party today," he told a group of gay activists, linking his plight to those of Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who lost his renomination bid over the weekend, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the GOP to run as an independent for a Senate seat.

"It was also a principled matter to be able to support President Obama," Specter said, citing the stimulus vote he cast while still a Republican and his vote for health-care legislation. Saying he had returned to "the party of my roots," he said he moved to the GOP in the mid-1960s only after Democrats would not allow him the nomination for Philadelphia district attorney.

Specter quickly pivoted to his decades on the Appropriations Committee, where he has steered billions of dollars to federal research combating AIDS and other diseases.

If he beats Sestak, it would be another example of bringing home the bacon as a pathway to electoral success. "You don't want to bite off the hand that feeds you," John Vatavuk, a county commissioner in Somerset County, said in explaining his support for Specter.

But experience may not carry the weight it once did in this anti-incumbent environment, as Bennett, 76, discovered in Utah on Saturday. Several gay activists left Specter's event in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh and quickly tossed aside the campaign pins they had been given, proclaiming their support for Sestak. Declining to speak on the record, they questioned whether Specter had the stamina and the health to serve out another term.

Still recovering from Hodgkin's disease, Specter frequently dabs at his eyes with a tissue, a result of a common side effect. He survived brain and heart surgery in the 1990s and several bouts with Hodgkin's in the past five years. "I'm fine. Periodic tests, all fine. I play squash almost every day," he said.

He has survived his share of political scares as well, including a come-from-behind reelection in 1992 and his victory over Toomey in 2004. Tagged with the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen," Specter tells Democrats that he is the tough-guy candidate who can keep the seat in Democratic hands. "I beat him before, and I can beat him again," he said inside the union hall, to cheers.

'Political calculus'

Sestak, a little-known second-term congressman from just west of Philadelphia, paints Specter as the ultimate opportunist. He links his party switch to the kind of deal-making that turned off many voters during the 10-month effort to pass the health-care overhaul, calling Specter's move the point "where the Democratic Party started going wrong."

"The career politicians are the ones who got us into this," Sestak said in an interview outside a community college in Johnstown. "They can't be the ones to get us out of it. The deal with Arlen Specter was the opposite of how we seized the White House. We won that by audacity, not political calculus."

This is just his third political campaign, a fact he proudly notes while telling voters that he trailed Specter by 46 points when he entered the primary in August.

Energy is a key selling point. He told a group of about 20 students and senior citizens at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College that he had held more than 500 campaign events since January. He vowed to return to Johnstown every year he serves in the Senate.

Another key point for Sestak is authenticity, and there's no subtlety in the contrasts he makes.

"They're not all going to agree with me, but I'll tell you, they're going to know exactly where I stand," he said.

As Sestak left Johnstown on Friday, Charlie Vizzini, 60, a retired counselor for veterans, thanked him for the ad tying Bush and Specter, suggesting that "die-hard Democrats" in conservative towns in western Pennsylvania will not back the senator. "I think it resonates," Vizzini said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company