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The switch and fall of Arlen Specter

Arlen Specter's party switch and subsequent fall

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The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza give their analysis of the primary elections that sent incumbents packing and has rattled the establishment.

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Sen. Arlen Specter changed his party affiliation but didn't change his style. He battled and battled, like he always has, until the very end.

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If Democrats wanted to defeat Republican Senate nominee Patrick Toomey, he argued to voters, they'd need a fighter, one who happened to have spent the past 45 years as a Republican. In what was probably the final campaign of a storied career, the Republican-turned-Democrat eschewed the conventional wisdom of this election season -- that incumbents were endangered, the electorate angry and restless, experience no longer in vogue. Instead, Specter bragged about his three decades of senatorial seniority and his ability to deliver federal dollars to his state.

"Remember Popeye, who used to say, 'I am what I am'? I don't think anyone could dress me in different attire. I am what I am," Specter told reporters before the polls closed.

Specter is still what he is, but on Tuesday, Pennsylvania's Democratic voters ended one of the most colorful national political careers of the past several decades. Specter's gamble that Democrats would embrace him for what he was didn't pay off, as his primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, claimed momentum in the closing days of the race and never looked back.

Specter, who had turned blurring political and societal lines into an art form, was left to ponder his gamble.

His campaign blamed the defeat on the fervent anti-incumbent mood that is sweeping the country, in both parties, as demonstrated by the defeat this month of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) at his party's nominating convention and last week's primary defeat of veteran Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.).

"It's everywhere," Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D-Pa.), Specter's longtime friend and close political adviser, said after Specter's concession speech.

Rendell said that the opponent did not matter, and that the only thing Sestak did right was picking a "great ad" company, a reference to the Sestak consultants who previously worked for Rendell.

Specter and his 30 years of incumbency became a "lightning rod" for voters angry about the lasting effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Rendell said, adding that the party switch played into voters' distrust of career politicians.

"Switching parties is always tough," the governor said.

Turnout was very light in Specter's most critical region, his home town of Philadelphia. There, with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, fewer than 160,000 voters had cast ballots. While Specter was winning those votes by a two-to-one margin, the total number for the incumbent was shaping up to be more than 100,000 fewer votes than Rendell collected here in his competitive 2002 primary.

Specter's advisers blamed a malaise among Pennsylvania's Democrats. But Specter loyalists may find clues to his demise in the senator's shifting alliances.


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