This morning the political world was abuzz with news that Senator Arlen Specter left the Republicans to become a Democrat. Effectively, once Al Franken is likely crowned the junior Senator from Minnesota, the Democrats will have a de jure filibuster proof majority.
Republicans, for their part, were celebratory more than anything else. Speaking with Scott Wheeler of National Republican Trust this afternoon he said, “It’s a great day for Republicans and a great day for conservatives. The integrity of the Republican Party just went up.”
For his part, Wheeler takes credit for pushing Specter out of the party. After issuing a challenge that any Republican who supported the unpopular stimulus package would have a primary opponent, Specter took him up on the dare. Unfortunately for Specter, once he saw that he would be trounced in the Republican Party by challenger Pat Toomey, he picked politics over principle and sold himself to the Democrats.
Sold is the right word and in the coming days we will likely see what concessions he extracted. For starters, President Obama has promised to campaign for him next year which is no small token of support. However, in so doing, he has lost a powerful political role he (rightly or wrongly) held.
So-called moderates in the Senate are a powerful bunch. For instance, the “Gang of 14” wrote the policy on judicial appointments once the filibuster threats came out. Because of the hyper-partisanship (that still persists in the Obama post-partisanship era), moderates often are the key votes and can extract huge concessions for their votes. Those days are over for Specter because Republicans simply will not work with him again.
Democrats believe they now have a filibuster-proof majority, but likely what they gained on paper will not be that much in reality. If Specter wanted to side with the Democrats (as he is often prone to do), his party affiliation has never stopped him before. He’d cross party lines to break a filibuster. Now that he’s a Democrat, it certainly won’t give the Democrats any more filibuster-breaking votes.
Specter is also against “card check”, the unions’ top legislative priority, a stance that will hurt him in the primary if the party establishment can’t muscle whatever challenger may appear. He’s for judicial restraint and likely his positions on judges won’t change much. In short, the Democrats got a mere symbolic victory and inherited a vulnerable Senator up for re-election next year.
Whatever support Specter may have had in the Republican Party among voters is likely to vanish. Voters simply do not respond well to party switching. He will also likely face a Democratic primary challenge because the left wing of the Democrats will not embrace him either (remember how they treated Joe Lieberman?).
More importantly, while Obama is moderately popular, his policies are not. Come mid-term elections, his unpopular policies will be a weight around the Congressional Democrats shoulders. While many areas of the country do not necessarily have strong Republican farm teams, Pat Toomey is no amateur. Combine that with a candidate who obviously lacks principles and Specter faces real trouble come November of 2010.
Or as Wheeler put it, Specter showed he will “hold on to political power above considering principles, party and even the people.” In 2006 and 2008, voters threw out Republicans across the country for appearing slimy and unprincipled. Specter just put himself in that category for 2010.
So can conservatives win in Pennsylvania and elsewhere? Much depends on how Obama’s Administration goes (and it is not going well so far). However, the voters are fed up with the financial shenanigans of Congress and of the States, a symptom of that frustration being the popular Tea Parties. If Republicans can convince voters they’ve learned their lesson on fiscal conservatism (and Pat Toomey is the exemplar of that idea), the voters may well welcome them back to power; certainly after the radical expansion of deficits proposed by Obama.