The Curious Case of Arlen Specter

Pennsylvania is an increasingly Democratic state. In 2004, Kerry won the state by a hair; Obama won it with a handy ten percent lead. In 2004, twelve of nineteen Keystone Congressmen were Republican, as well as the two Senators. Now, eleven representatives and the junior Senator are Democrats. In 2004, there were roughly 500,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the state; during the extended primary last year, that lead expanded to well over a million. To Republican Pat Toomey, however, that's clearly not enough. For this reason—at least, it's the only reason that makes any sense—he announced yesterday that he's considering a primary run against Arlen Specter.

Arlen Specter only barely fended off Toomey in 2004, winning that contested primary by a bare two points. At the time, he had the support of the national Republican establishment, and especially George W. Bush and Rick Santorum. Now, of course, both Bush and Santorum are out of office, and it's hard to imagine a national Republican with the credibility to stand against the party's most right-wing elements. (Certainly Michael Steele's recent apology to Rush Limbaugh can't fill Specter with confidence.) And the strength of the Right within the Keystone GOP is quite strong: a recent poll showed that sixty-six percent of Republican voters would like to see Specter replaced with somebody else. As many voters have left the Republicans, the remaining few are increasingly doctrinaire, and Specter's vote for the stimulus bill proves to be a bridge too far.

Nor is all the bad news behind him. As David Weigel points out, Arlen Specter will face an unenviable choice when the Employee Free Choice Act comes up for a vote later this year. Specter voted for this last year, but only now, with Obama in office, does it stand a serious chance of passing. Organized labor—which largely supported him in 2004—would expect him to vote yes again; if he doesn't, he risks losing their endorsement. Conservative activists, on the other hand, will see a yes vote as further proof of Specter's treachery to the true faith of Ronald Reagan.

This dilemma will undoubtedly arise again and again: Specter can hardly be as conservative as the Republican base if he wants to retain his credibility among Democrats and independents, but he can hardly make the compromises necessary to mollify Pennsylvania's increasingly blue electorate without provoking a primary challenge with a strong likelihood of success. To this Philadelphia Democrat, it's a heartwarming tale of Scylla-meets-Charybdis.

Image credit: Flickr user musicFIRSTcoalition

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