Specter quits GOP to join Democrats
Biden, Carper play role in decision

By ADAM TAYLOR — The News Journal

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that he is leaving the Republican Party, saying his political philosophy is now more in line with that of the Democrats.

The decision follows months of wooing by Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and other Delaware Democrats.

Many of Specter’s longtime friends and political observers, however, counter that the 79-year-old, five-term Senate veteran is simply trying to further his own career by avoiding a nasty primary battle next year.

Either way, Carper is happy with the result.

“I know any number of people have urged Sen. Specter to take this action, including our vice president, members of our Democratic caucus and me,” Carper said. “Having said that, I am still surprised he has taken this step. It’s a big one and I’m sure he has done a lot of soul-searching to get to this place.”

With Specter on their side, Democrats will have 59 Senate seats. Democrat Al Franken won the contested recount in Minnesota, and if he beats back the court challenge of Republican Norm Coleman, he would become the party’s 60th vote, enough to overcome a filibuster.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in a televised interview last month that Biden was part of the effort to convert Specter. Born and raised in Scranton, Biden was often called “Pennsylvania’s third senator” during last year’s presidential race.

Biden congratulated Specter on his decision Tuesday.

“I welcome my old friend to the Democratic Party,” Biden said. “Sen. Arlen Specter is a man of remarkable courage and integrity. I know he will remain a powerful and independent voice for Pennsylvania and the country.”

Rhett Ruggerio, a Delaware lobbyist who has run successful political campaigns for Wilmington and state legislative Democrats, said Biden being in the White House couldn’t have hurt as Specter mulled his options.

“He realizes his days in the Senate are numbered and that the Senate is getting more and more liberal,” Ruggerio said. “He can get a whole lot more done in a Democratic Senate, and with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, in the White House than he ever could as a Republican.”

The press to convert Specter likely began within days after the moderate squeaked past conservative Pat Toomey in 2004, winning 51 percent of the vote in the Pennsylvania Republican primary.

“That’s just a conventional political move, to woo him when he’s most vulnerable,” Ruggerio said.

The prospect of another tough primary against Toomey was the driving force behind Specter’s choice to flip, experts said. Joseph Pika, professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said Specter pulled off the 2004 victory only after President George W. Bush and Republican Senate leaders told Pennsylvania voters that a moderate was more likely to beat a Democrat that November.

Just last week, Rasmussen Reports of Vienna, Va., released a poll saying Specter trailed Toomey by 51 percent to 30 percent. Rasmussen said the results sent a clear signal that Specter was in trouble.

It noted that Pennsylvania law prohibits a candidate who loses a primary from running as an independent in the general election, so Specter couldn’t replicate Sen. Joe Lieberman’s move in 2006, when he lost the Connecticut Democratic primary but won in November. “In essence, Specter is reading the political tea leaves and political winds and thinks being a Democrat in 2010 is his best opportunity to win.”

John McNichol, a leader of the Delaware County, Pa., Republican Party, agrees. McNichol has known Specter for 40 years, going back to the days when Specter switched from Democrat to Republican to win the race for Philadelphia district attorney.

“He’s always been about himself first,” McNichol said. “This is his last survival move.”

McNichol said state Republicans have always had a tenuous relationship with Specter.

“He’s always been as liberal as you get, but when he voted with Republicans 55 percent of the time, that was better than we could have gotten from a Democratic senator,” he said. “He’s out of touch with Pennsylvania Republicans. I guess we’ll see next year if Pennsylvania Republicans are out of touch with the voters.”

Specter has acknowledged in recent months that to win a sixth term, he would need the support of thousands of Republicans who sided with President Barack Obama last fall.

“I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter said in a statement Tuesday.

Obama called Specter almost immediately after he was informed of the decision to say the Democratic Party is “thrilled to have you,” according to a White House official.

As one of the most senior Republicans in the Senate, Specter held powerful positions on the Judiciary and Appropriations committees. It was not clear how Democrats would calculate his seniority in assigning committee perches.

Specter has long been an independent Republican, and he proved it most recently when he became one of only three members of the GOP in Congress to vote for Obama’s economic stimulus legislation.

Delaware’s Rep. Mike Castle, one of a dwindling number of Republican moderates in Congress, was disappointed with Specter’s choice.

“Sen. Specter’s decision to run as a Democrat in 2010 is a blow to the Republican Party, particularly the more centrist wing,” Castle said. “I disagree with his decision to remove himself from the GOP and would have preferred to see him work to influence the direction of the party from within.”