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Expert Examines Specter's Party Switch
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Expert Examines Specter's Party Switch

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Expert Examines Specter's Party Switch

Expert Examines Specter's Party Switch
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Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has announced he will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Randall Miller, professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, discusses Specter's decision.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Arlen Specter says the Republican Party has abandoned him. The senior senator from Pennsylvania, first elected in 1980, abandoned the GOP today. Senator Specter will seek re-election as a Democrat and will be accorded the seniority of a five-term senator, not a freshman. As a Republican, he faced a primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. And he admitted to a Washington news conference that he would likely lose that race.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I have traveled the state, surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, done public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us now is Randall Miller, history professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Professor Miller, Arlen Specter survived a primary challenge from Pat Toomey in 2004, why are his chances so much worse in 2010?

Professor RANDALL MILLER (History Department, Saint Joseph's University): Well, there are a lot of reasons, but principally, there are two, I think, that come to fore. One is that the Republicans themselves are trying to find an identity and they are repeating a mantra of fiscal conservatism that's playing very well for Republicans across the country. And related to that is that Specter's vote on the stimulus package really stung a lot of Republicans in Pennsylvania, even though most people in Pennsylvania supported the move.

Polling show that Specter - who's always polled better from Democrats than Republicans - after the stimulus vote, his polls among Republicans just went way down. And when he did all his political calculations that factored in, no doubt, of how many of those people could he ever get back, even though he has a huge war chest, wasn't really worth the effort.

SIEGEL: Now, he says that the nature of the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania has changed a great deal. So many people have changed registration there.

Prof. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, that's actually been a process that'd been going for some time - people moved over for us, and is especially true for the four counties and around Philadelphia. In Philadelphia they have about 40 percent of the votes who have been very supportive of Arlen Specter in the general election.

But many of them, Republicans, began to move away from the Republican Party and go over to the Democrats, first to support Ed Rendell, who is very popular in the region. And then now, of course, in the 2008 run for the Democratic primary, presidential primary, a lot of people wanted to get in on that action, and they moved as well.

And once unanchored from the Republican Party - and there were a lot of reasons for it. They didn't necessarily even agree with Republican policy, especially on social conservatism. Specter worried, of course, that there's - could he find some way to bring them back in. And, again, the cost of doing so was such that he figured, no, they'll vote in the general election. They'll vote for me. And that's basically the hand he's dealt himself.

SIEGEL: Well, you say that the Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to define themselves, and they're defining themselves around fiscal conservatism, largely. What does it do to them for Specter to leave?

Prof. MILLER: Well, it's an interesting question because, in fact, there still is a split among Republicans. Not all the moderates have de-camped to the Democrats, A. B, there are social conservatives. One of the most interesting things about the election, if it had occurred at the Republican primaries, not only would you have Pat Toomey running again with a lot of money both from inside and especially outside the state, fiscal conservative, but there was also a social conservative, Peg Luksik, an anti-abortion foe who was trying to rally those forces.

And the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives do not necessarily sit down together and hold hands. So it's not clear that Specter leaving the Republicans solves all the internal problems of the Republicans here or, indeed, elsewhere.

SIEGEL: Randall Miller, thanks a lot for talking with us (unintelligible).

Prof. MILLER: You bet.

SIEGEL: Professor Randall Miller of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia on today's news about Arlen Specter.

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Republican Sen. Arlen Specter To Switch Parties

Five-term GOP Sen. Arlen Specter said Tuesday that his party had "gone too far to the right" and he would defect to the Democrats. But he promised to maintain his independence and not be an "automatic" vote for his new party.

Specter, 79, said in a statement that he had surveyed his supporters and officeholders in Pennsylvania and it had "become clear" that his support of the White House stimulus package had "caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable."

Later, appearing for a news conference in Washington, he said in a reference to a likely 2010 Republican primary challenge that he was "not prepared to have my fate decided by that jury."

"I know I disappoint my friends and colleagues," he said. "But, frankly, I have been disappointed by some of the response. So, the disappointment runs in both directions."

Specter was one of only three GOP senators to vote for President Obama's stimulus bill. Widely viewed as among the most moderate GOP lawmakers, Specter had found himself at odds with the party line on several times over the years, particularly over his support of abortion and gay rights.

With Specter, Democrats would have 59 Senate seats. Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, whose election is still in question months after voters went to the polls, could become a 60th vote, giving the party the number it needs to block filibusters by GOP senators.

Specter, however, took pains to say he would maintain his hallmark independence.

"I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he emphasized. "I have always agreed with John Kennedy that sometimes a party asks too much. And if the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not hesitate to disagree."

President Obama telephoned Specter to offer his "full support," saying the Democratic Party was "thrilled" to have him, The Associated Press reported. The senator said Vice President Biden had recently urged him to become a Democrat.

Specter, whose likely opponent in the 2010 GOP primary would have been former conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, had publicly acknowledged that to win, he would need thousands of Pennsylvania voters who had switched from Republican to Democrat in last year's presidential election to vote for him.

Senate colleagues in the Republican Party reacted with either disappointment or resignation, while Democrats welcomed a new member to their caucus.

Arizona Sen. John McCain expressed his regret. "I think it's pretty obvious the polls showed him well behind his primary opponent," the former GOP presidential candidate said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said he was "disappointed" at the decision.

"Arlen's a good friend, a great guy." he said.

Asked if he was surprised by the move, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said: "I'm surprised it happened this quickly. I thought it might have to germinate a little bit longer," before adding, "But, this is fine."

The move, however, left others wondering about the future of a party that has increasingly edged out moderate voices.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said she has also been wooed by Democrats but has "no plans" to do the same as Specter. She nonetheless expressed concern over the direction of her party.

"The statements that are coming nationally from the Republican Party ... nurture a culture of exclusion and alienation," she said. "I really think this is a time for the Republican Party to ... re-evaluate and redefine."

As one of the most senior Republicans in the Senate, Specter enjoyed powerful posts on the Judiciary and Appropriations panels. Democrats must now decide how much seniority he gets credit for in their committee assignments.

From NPR and wire service reports

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