Arlen Specter to Switch Parties: Reaction

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2008 file photo, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Sources on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 said veteran GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania intends to switch parties. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2008 file photo, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Sources on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 said veteran GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania intends to switch parties. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File) (Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)
Larry J. Sabato
Political Analyst and Director, University of Virginia Center for Politics
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 2:30 PM

Larry J. Sabato, political analyst and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, was online Tuesday, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

Sabato is the author of the new book, "The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House," released last week.


Larry J. Sabato: Hello to all. It's another exciting day in politics on Obama's 99th. I'm here to answer questions on, and also listen to what you have to say about, Arlen Specter. His switch to the Democratic party has been rumored as a possibility for some time--but clearly came as a surprise anyway. Larry Sabato


Claverack, N.Y.: Should we assume Gov. Rendell has assured the senator he'll have an uncontested Democratic primary? Otherwise Sen. Specter would run into the same primary problems he had with Toomey on the right, only from the left.

Larry J. Sabato: Great question. I am wondering the same. But I believe we are safe in assuming that Specter and Rendell have talked, and both know how to make a deal. Remember, Rendell had given just a token contribution to one D candidate, and he wasn't much enthused about the field. Rendell can't empty the D field for Specter, but he can sure help Specter win the primary.


Charlottesville, Va.: What significance does the timing of Specter's switch have? Why do it now, as opposed to earlier this year? Why not wait until closer to November?

Larry J. Sabato: This gives the Democratic activists time to adjust, and it gives Gov. Rendell time to work whatever magic is needed. Remember, the GOP right may hate Specter, but the D activists don't love him either. He votes their way some of the time, and they'd prefer a senator who was with them over 90% of the time. Let's see what changes appear in Specter's Senate voting record in the months to come. Card-check won't change, Specter says, but there may be some other concessions to Democrats.


WDC: What does this mean for the Senator's committee assignments? What will his role be on the Judiciary Comittee?

Larry J. Sabato: I can only assume that Harry Reid has promised to secure those assignments and guarantee Specter's seniority, but we'll have to wait for an announcement.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Do you expect Specter's switch to spark more antagonism between Senate Republicans and Democrats? Could we end up just as divided as during the Bush years, or is this a wake-up call to overhaul the Republican party's substance and not just its image?

Larry J. Sabato: The antagonism level, already high, will just remain there. The second part of your question is key. How did the Republicans lose the 60th vote (Franken is already #59, just not sworn in yet)? They lost it because the very conservative GOP base of activists wouldn't even listen to Sen. John Cornyn, a dyed-in-the-wool Texas conservative who heads up the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He tried to get Pat Toomey NOT to challenge Specter in the 2010 GOP primary, because he knew Toomey was a November loser and only Specter could hold the seat for the GOP. Did they listen? Is the Pope Samoan? And now yet another Senate seat is gone with the wind for the GOP.

Perhaps I should say the Republicans shot themselves in the foot--but they ran out of feet a long time ago. If this kind of stupidity continues, the Republican party will be a rump instead of a party. That's bad news for all of us, even the partisan Democrats (who won't agree). Neither party can be trusted with complete power over time. Arrogance and corruption always develop when one party is guaranteed dominance. We need two strong, competitive parties. But the GOP can't be that until it remembers a metaphor provided by nature: Neither a bird not a party can soar with just one wing.


Westlake Village, Calif.: Hi, Larry! Is there any reason to suspect that more NE Republicans (i.e., the ladies from Maine) may be thinking of following Specter's lead? Is there any inkling that more Republican congressmen outside the South may begin thinking along these lines?

Larry J. Sabato: Smart question. Here's the logical answer: If Maine's conservative Republicans decide to challenge either Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins (just reelected) in a future GOP primary, and polling shows they are in trouble, then they can run as Independents or switch to the Democratic party. Believe it or not, there are plenty of GOP base activists who would gladly see their party lose the two Maine seats so the party could be even more 'pure'.


Charlotte, NC: Will Specter have trouble adjusting to life in a different party? How have others dealt with a switch in the past?

Larry J. Sabato: There will be some bumps but let's remember, politicians switch parties for two reasons: (1) They will be happier in the other party ideologically; and (2) They will have better job security. Sounds like a formula for happiness to me!


Fort Mill, S.C.: Doesn't the party in power typically lose seats in midterm elections? Why is there no discussion around that as the "filibuster proof" majority is talked about in the media as it relates to Sen. Spector?

Larry J. Sabato: I encourage you to read my Crystal Ball,, where we recently did a three-part analysis of the 2010 Senate contests. Democrats have quite a good chance to add Senate seats next year. It's really because of the specific states coming up and the pattern of GOP retirements. But in the House, the Republicans ought to be able to add some House seats, though no one currently believes they have any real chance at a takeover. We'll see. It's too early to know the conditions that will prevail in November 2010.


Eau Claire, Wisc.: Sen. Specter has stated he is opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act. Does his decision to switch parties make it more likely he could vote for this bill?

Larry J. Sabato: All I know is that Sen. Specter said today he will continue to oppose the bill in its current form.


Atlanta: With so much at stake with regard to the massive expansion of government pushed by the President and the fact that this move will give the Democrats the opportunity to pass nearly any legislation they want, shouldn't Specter have resigned his seat and then Pennsylvania could have held a special election, in which he could have run as a Democrat?

It just seems unfair to the country that one Senator decides to switch parties and the possibilities of what can and cannot be passed changes dramatically. This almost makes Specter one of the most powerful people in Washington as he himself can decide what passes or doesn't, or at least what comes to a vote or not.

Larry J. Sabato: Strom Thurmond (SC) did that in the early 1950s, but normally, when senators from either party switch parties, they do not resign. Gee, I wonder why?


Soon to be Independent: I have to say I identify with Sen Spector. I have been a Republican my entire adult life. But because I have libertarian views on social issues (I think government should not try to legislate morality), I would be considered a RINO, as Spector was often called. Do the Republicans realize they are dirving many Foreign Policy and Economic conservatives out of the party because of our social views? If only social conservatives are left, than the party will be completely irrelevant.

Larry J. Sabato: Many GOP leaders with whom I have spoken understand exactly what you have just expressed. But they fear the GOP right-wing base in their own states and districts. They can be challenged in party primaries and conventions from the right, and lose. But they are fiddling while the GOP's Rome burns.


as a Democrat: I'm amused by the concept of a filibuster proof majority. Since when have the Democrats done anything in lockstep? That's one area where the Republicans have managed their members better than we have. So while it's something to trumpet, it probably will never happen.

Larry J. Sabato: Good point. The Democrats theoretically have 60 votes to shut down a filibuster (after Franken is sworn in). And I theoretically could choose to retire this year, despite the size of my 101k (formerly my 401k).


Bethesda, Md.: What's the latest on the Franken seat? And any chance either of the Maine senators or other moderate GOP will jump?

Larry J. Sabato: I am fond of Minnesota and have many friends there, but no one is going to tell me they have a recount system that works. I'll bet most people in MN wish they had had a run-off election like Georgia did last November, or maybe even instant run-off (rank-ordering the candidates at the first election). But it is too late for that! The MN Supreme Court is taking its nice sweet time about Norm Coleman's appeal, and it is going to be probably another 6 weeks before a resolution.

No, I don't think Snowe or Collins will switch unless, like Specter, they are pushed by the right.


Washington, DC: Specter published an article today taking issue with how powerful the office of the president has become. Does that mean he's likely to ensure tough hearings on President Obama's judicial appointments? Are there any other ways that this balance-of-powers issue he wants to advance may cause troubles for the President, even though they're now of the same party?

Larry J. Sabato: Specter can be a contrarian, and you never know, but somehow I'll bet he becomes quite accommodating on most issues to the Democrats and the Obama administration. He isn't going to want to stir up a D primary challenger for himself next year.

Come to think of it, Specter's timing delivers a 100th day-eve anniversary present to President Obama. And you want to tell me that's a coincidence?


Washington, DC: I wonder Sen. Specter considered that at his age of 79, it's time to think of retirement and moving aside to let the chips fall where they may. I'm happy to see Democrats gain strength, but not about the fossilization of our political structures.

Larry J. Sabato: As you know, we now have the oldest Senate in American history (average age). Thanks to us, the taxpayers, senators have the nicest retirement home in America. What a sweet life--and power, too!


Orono, Maine: Larry,

The chances that either Snowe or Collins will switch is pretty minimal. There are still moderate Republicans here and both are extremely popular.

My question is what does this for the Minnesota Senate seat that's currently in litigation.

Larry J. Sabato: Agreed on Collins and Snowe, as I said earlier.

For MN, the GOP already had all the incentive it needed to draw out the proceedings for as long as possible. This really doesn't add much more.


Minneapolis: Can we expect to see Specter break from some of his previous positions as part of the deal to bring him over? I assume that Specter must be willing to toe the party line on some issues in order to make it worthwhile to clear the field in 2010.

Larry J. Sabato: I'd love to know the deal, but don't. We'll just have to watch Specter's voting record as it evolves--and maybe wait for the leaky sieve called Capitol Hill to deliver some gossip.


Naive human interest questions: Does this mean Specter has to change his office space? How about staff, will he have to fire and rehire? How does it work on the Senate floor, does a desk physically get moved over to the other side?

Larry J. Sabato: It's highly doubtful that this will force Specter to do much of anything in terms of offices and seniority. Some Republican staffers will almost certainly leave him; otherwise they will switch parties, too.

As far as his desk, with tongue only half in cheek, I'd recommend Specter seat himself in the middle of the Democratic majority to insure his physical safety.


Minneapolis: Doesn't the fact that the Democrats are willing to take in Specter -- who voted for the war in Iraq, for the Military Commissions Act, for the renewal of the Patriot Act, for telecom immunity, for NSA warrantless wiretapping, and for the Bush tax cuts -- say as much about the desire for raw power among Democrats as it does about the conventional wisdom about the Republicans losing the "moderates"?

Larry J. Sabato: Sure, you can draw that conclusion. But the American party system, as opposed to the classical British party system of Edmund Burke, is all about winning. Score a big one for the Dems, subtract a big one for the GOP.


Hampton, Va.: Professor Sabato,

Do you think Specter will face any difficulties in being reelected as a Democrat?

Larry J. Sabato: This is a test for Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Menendez of the Dem Senatorial Committee, and others. Can they clear the field of POTENT challengers? We'll see. But remember, as long as Pat Toomey is the GOP nominee, count this one in the Democratic column come November 2010, whether the D is Specter or another prominent Democrat.


Suburban DC: What bills are more likely to get through now come June when Franken is seated (climate change, a free choice bill without a card check, health care, etc.)? Also with this switch how much will NIH's budget increase? I am assuming his medical causes will be assured proper funding.

Larry J. Sabato: Again, this is so new I don't have the answers for you. My instinct tells me that Democrats will be marginally better off in getting their agenda passed, but let's keep in mind that Specter already has a lot of influence and seniority, and he already defects to the Dems on some big ticket items. Is this a revolution in the Senate? No. It really has greater implications for the sad state of the Republican party, and the GOP's inability to make room for a moderate and independent corps of officeholders and voters that can actually get it back into power in the future.

We have a party-and-a-half system right now, instead of a healthy two-party system.


Washington, D.C.: Has Specter already switched parties or is he just planning to do so in time for the 2010 election?

Larry J. Sabato: Specter's statement speaks of the switch both in the present tense, and also as an intent to run in the D primary in 2010. But can you really imagine Republicans letting him into their next caucus lunch? From their perspective, he's a traitor and a spy. He'd better be well armed if he goes.


Alexandria, Va.: Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele made the following statement about Specter's decision:

" Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let's be honest-Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."

Do you think that kind of statement will help the GOP gain new support ? How long do you think Steele will be around ? And who is the real GOP leader ?

Larry J. Sabato: And in Steele's statement, we find the GOP's problem in a nutshell--just as I've already described.

A large majority of the Republican leaders who are out-front on TV or grabbing the headlines as "leaders" are old divisive faces from the past, not fresh younger faces of the future. Until that changes, expect the GOP to make little progress in changing its image.


Reading, Pa.: People in Pennsylvania are not dumb or forgetful. We know what a Republican lapdog Arlen has been all these many years. He was a Nixon defender for goodness sake. I'm as yellow dog as they come but no way in hell will I vote for this jerk.

Larry J. Sabato: It will be interesting to see how many Democrats feel the way you do in PA, and whether they sponsor a strong, well funded candidate in the D primary in 2010.


Wait, what?: The Democrats could reject his switch? That makes no sense. They could certainly reject working with him but they can't refuse someone entry into the party can they?

Larry J. Sabato: Of course they will welcome him with open arms. But that doesn't mean the D party activists in PA will necessarily re-nominate him for the Senate in 2010. We'll see.


San Jose, Calif.: Could a libertarian and nonreligious party rise from the ashes of the Republican party - either a new party, a splinter off the Democrats, or a nonreligious Republican party? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Larry J. Sabato: I heard this in the 60s after Goldwater. I heard it in the 70s after Watergate. I'm hearing it again. Most observers would say no, but maybe the third time is the charm.


Tipping point?: Any clue what finally pushed Sen. Spector over the edge? (Snowe says she's "devastate" and Brownback says he's "stunned" so they were not confidants prior to the big switch.)

Larry J. Sabato: About a dozen public and private polls that showed he would lose overwhelmingly in the 2010 GOP primary that would be dominated by right-wing activists.


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