Arlen Specter's party switch and subsequent fall

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A01

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.

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.

The son of Jewish immigrants, he was raised in rural Kansas. Settling into Democratic-dominated Philadelphia, Specter bolted the Democrats in the mid-1960s so he could secure the GOP nomination to become district attorney, a post he never tired of referencing over the next four decades. As the moderate Republican brand slowly disappeared over the past 15 years, he lined up with conservative Republicans to secure the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, overseeing the Bush White House's confirmation of federal judges. But some in the GOP didn't trust him.

The final straw with Republicans came in February 2009 when he voted for Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, one of three GOP senators to put the legislation over the top. Toomey, whom Specter had narrowly defeated in 2004, soon entered the race for a rematch. Specter's support had plummeted among the party's conservative electorate. "A senator is supposed to be able to exercise his judgment without being excommunicated, and when I voted for the stimulus that was the end of my relationship with the Republican Party," Specter said Tuesday.

Facing near-certain defeat in this year's Republican primary, Specter went jury shopping and switched back to the Democratic Party with the blessing of President Obama, Vice President Biden and Rendell. It was that final blurring of the lines that proved electorally fatal. Democratic voters who had spent three decades trying to defeat Specter the Republican never really warmed up to the latest Specter.

"I've crossed the aisle perhaps once too often. That's a laugh line, guys," Specter told reporters. "Nobody laughed."

Specter was built for the courtroom and the committee room.

From his tough cross-examination of law professor Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to his citation of Scottish law in opposing Bill Clinton's impeachment, Specter practiced throughout his career a fierce brand of legalistic and legislative fisticuffs. He has jousted with Supreme Court justices and attorneys general, with political opponents on his right and on his left, earning the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen" from friend and foe alike.

As the polls closed Tuesday evening, Specter appeared at peace with whatever verdict that would come his way, suggesting that he would not do a single thing differently.

"I wasn't sent to Washington to play it safe," he said. "I have something to show for what I've done."

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