Specter The Incumbent, But Not The Shoo-In
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Primary season is in full swing. Voters go to the polls in Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina; Charlie Crist goes independent, and the president continues his search for the next Supreme Court justice. It's Wednesday, time for a Cinco de Mayo edition of the Political Junkie.
Former President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Wheres the beef?
Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
Former Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: But Im the decider.
(Soundbite of scream)
ROBERTS: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us to talk politics. Dan Coats wins in Indiana, the Dems pick Lee Fisher in Ohio, the Democratic Senate primary in North Carolina heads to a runoff, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford won't face criminal ethics charges.
Later this hour, the Pennsylvania primary, we'll talk to Senator Arlen Specter, who's seeking re-election as a Democrat this time; and his challenger in the upcoming primary, Joe Sestak, less than two weeks. Political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A, as he does every Wednesday, and as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.
KEN RUDIN: Hi, Rebecca. Okay, well, yesterday in the Ohio primary, Rob Portman, a former congressman, won the Republican nomination for the Senate in Ohio. Now, he's also a former budget director and trade representative under President Bush. Neither of those positions is a Cabinet position, but here's it leads to this question: name the last three former Cabinet officials elected to the Senate.
ROBERTS: So you need to get all three of them.
RUDIN: All three.
ROBERTS: The last three Cabinet officials elected to the U.S. Senate. If you think you know, our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
So let's start, Ken, with the big news that just happened a few minutes ago. In a surprise announcement at a news conference, Democratic Representative David Obey of Wisconsin - he's been in the House since 1969 - he announced that he will retire at the end of this year.
Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): There is a time to stay and a time to go, and this is my time to go. Frankly, I hate to do it. There is so much that needs to be done. But even more frankly, I am bone tired.
When I first put my name on the ballot for the state assembly in 1962, I was 23 years old. Now, 48 years later, I will soon be 72. When I went to Congress in 1969, I was the youngest member of the House of Representatives. As you can tell by looking at me, I'm not anymore.
ROBERTS: David Obey, a loss for the Democrats, not just for that Wisconsin seat, but he chairs the Appropriations Committee.
RUDIN: He is a power, and this is big news. I mean, I hate to talk about my age, but when he was first elected, I remember when David Obey was first elected in '69, it was when Melvin Laird, the congressman then, was named Richard Nixon's defense secretary. And as he said, he was the youngest member of the House back then.
Now he's 71. He's one of the big powers, and he's under a big attack back home. The Republicans for the first time in a long, long time are putting up a serious candidate against him, a guy named Sean Duffy. His occupation is, he's the Ashland County district attorney. He's also known as a former cast member on MTV's "The Real World," but you know, we've seen strange things happen, like Scott Brown, the Cosmopolitan centerfold getting elected to the Senate.
But anyway, he's one of many big-time Democratic powerhouses who were under assault from the Republicans - Ike Skelton, John Spratt of South Carolina, the Budget Committee chairman - and there's unhappiness with the Obama spending, the Obama administration, especially in culturally conservative northwestern Wisconsin. I don't think he's leaving for that reason. I think, as he says, as David Obey says, he's just bone tired and he perhaps may not have the strength to fight a campaign that he's not used to competing against.
ROBERTS: Do you think he was going to lose in Wisconsin?
RUDIN: I don't. I don't think so. I think the Republicans wanted to make things difficult for him, but you know, there have been upsets before. Speaker of the House Tom Foley was not supposed to lose in 1994. The Ways and Means chairman in 1980, All Ullman of Oregon, was not supposed to lose - but when there's a wave out there, some senior officials could go down, and some Republicans thought that Obey could've have been one of them.
ROBERTS: Well, if Obey thought that, you know, he got some sense of what the attacks against him were going to be in the fall. The National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad last month attacking him.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
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Unidentified Announcer: Barack Obama is building onto an overwhelming national debt, over $100,000 for every taxpayer. Who can you hold accountable? How about the architect of Obama's spending, David Obey.
Obey chairs the Appropriations Committee. Obama's spending gets Obey's stamp of approval. It's a Niagara Falls of money flowing out of Washington. Call David Obey. Remind him it's not Washington's money, it's your money.
ROBERTS: It's the NRCC ad, released last month against Congressman David Obey, a sign of things to come in other races?
RUDIN: Perhaps, I mean, but and it goes both ways, too. Rob Portman, who I mentioned earlier, who won the Republican nomination in Ohio, used to be the trade representative under President and the budget director under President Bush, and so if you're going to fight over the economy, do you blame Obama and the Democrats, or do you blame Bush and Portman? That's one of the issues that you see in Ohio.
But with Obey, it's also the war in Afghanistan. He was elected as an anti-war guy in 1969. He's been an anti-war congressman for most of his life, and yet he has to sign off, in some ways, about President Obama's request for more troops to Afghanistan, and that's something, again, he probably didn't want to deal with.
ROBERTS: Let's quickly run through some of the results from yesterday's primaries. We had Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina.
RUDIN: Indiana is the first one, alphabetically. Dan Coats, who served 10 years in the Senate, he was appointed to the Senate after Dan Quayle was elected vice president, served 10 years, retired in 1998 because basically he didn't want to run against Evan Bayh, who was probably going to beat him.
Evan Bayh served two terms, a Democrat. Now he's retiring. And Washington Republicans lured Dan Coats out of retirement. He has been a D.C. lobbyist for a long time. He was the ambassador to Germany under President Bush.
But he won a kind of underwhelming victory in yesterday's primary, a 39 percent in a three-way race. Some conservatives, stronger conservatives, did much better than expected. The Democratic nominee will be Brad Ellsworth. He will be picked by the State Democratic Convention on May 15. The reason there is no Democratic primary is because Evan Bayh dropped out of the race later in the process than expected.
ROBERTS: And anything to read into the fact that the conservative party challengers did not take over Dan Coats in that race?
RUDIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, Coats had the establishment. He had the money. He had clearly the backing of the NRSC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, and the establishment did back him.
But again, as I say, it was an underwhelming performance. But again and Indiana of course went for Barack Obama for the a Democrat for the first time since 1964 in a presidential race. So there is a Democratic tide in Indiana. The question is whether Dan Coats, at 66 years old, is up for taking back that seat for the Republicans. He says he is. Democrats are skeptical about that.
ROBERTS: Ohio, you mentioned Rob Portman. What about on the Democratic side?
RUDIN: Well, there was a battle between two statewide elected officials. The lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, defeated Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The race was closer than expected. Polls had Lee Fisher, who had tons of money, the endorsement of Governor Ted Strickland and the establishment behind him, but he only won by 10 points. Not a very tight race, but again - one, it shows that female candidates to this day are still raising far less money than male candidates; but two, that Fisher was thought of as a stronger candidate in November, if for no other reason he could raise more money.
But Rob Portman has much more money than both Democrats. So this is a seat for George Voinovich, that George Voinovich is giving up after two terms. Republicans think they can hold it on with Rob Portman.
ROBERTS: And North Carolina, there was a cast of thousands in the Democratic primary, hoping to take on one-term Senator Burr.
RUDIN: Richard Burr is the Republican. At least three Democrats were running on that one. Again, it was a female candidate, Elaine Marshall, who finished on top. She is a four-term secretary of state. The Democratic establishment in Washington was backing Cal Cunningham, an Iraq war veteran, but you need 40 percent of the vote to win the primary in North Carolina. Even though Marshall finished first, she didn't get the 40 percent. So she and Cal Cunningham will go to a June 22nd runoff. Good news for Richard Burr because that means six more weeks of Democrats fighting each other while Burr can, you know, stock up on his money.
ROBERTS: Any emerging themes from those three, about voter turnout or about the issues that emerged as important?
RUDIN: Well, one thing we were looking at, basically, was whether the establishment would backfire on these candidates; Lee Fisher in Ohio, Dan Coats in Indiana, Cal Cunningham in North Carolina. Those were the establishment candidates.
All of them seem to have survived, whether for better or for worse, and so the voters didn't seem to be turning out the incumbents that some people thought. Although, one congressman in Indiana, Dan Burton, long-time veteran of Congress, first elected in 1982, he barely was re-nominated with, like, 30 percent of the vote. He only won by two percentage points over his nearest Republican rival. Had it been a smaller field, Dan Burton would probably be out of a job by now.
ROBERTS: And looking ahead, what's coming up?
RUDIN: Well, next week is Nebraska and West Virginia. Not big states, I mean, where there's a gubernatorial race in Nebraska, but the primaries are not that significant, nothing statewide in West Virginia. But I should tell you, though, that next week is the 40th anniversary of the West Virginia presidential primary, when John F. Kennedy defeated Hubert Humphrey - a big battle over Catholicism versus Protestantism in a state like West Virginia - one of the classic primary battles in presidential history.
ROBERTS: And Utah, Bob Bennett's in trouble?
RUDIN: Big trouble. He's in big trouble. It's a strange look, it's one thing, Charlie Crist has disappointed many conservatives in Florida; John McCain has disappointed many conservatives in Arizona; and certain we know about Arlen Specter, what happened to him in Pennsylvania.
But Bob Bennett is a conservative Republican, however, not conservative enough for some Republicans in Utah. He voted for the TARP bailout program. He did some across-the-aisle talking about health care. And right now, if he does not get 40 percent of the vote at Saturday's Republican state convention, not only will he not be able to he won't even be able to compete in the June 22 Utah Republican primary. It looks like Bob Bennett will be out of a job come this Saturday, because he will not get the 40 percent, which is pretty remarkable.
ROBERTS: All right, let's get some trivia answers. We were looking for the last three Cabinet officials elected to the U.S. Senate. Sam(ph) in Big Fork, Minnesota, what's your answer?
SAM (Caller): Hi, how about Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole and Martinez of Florida?
RUDIN: Well, you have two of them. So we can't give it to you yet, but Martinez was not a Cabinet official - Cabinet official. Martinez was more of a party official. He was the Republican national chairman. So we need a third one.
ROBERTS: So Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole are correct. We need the third one. Let's try Phil(ph) in Hollywood, Florida. Phil?
PHIL (Caller): I think he stole my thunder, but I believe, wasn't Mel Martinez HHS under George W. Bush? So that's a Cabinet-level official. So that was my guess, and Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole. So Martinez was not a Cabinet member?
ROBERTS: You know what, Phil? We're going to put you on hold, and we're going to double-check that. That was not the answer that Ken Rudin was looking for, but since we don't have the third one from any of our callers, we're going to double-check after this break. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
The Pennsylvania primary candidates on the Democratic side after this break.
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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We're talking with Ken Rudin, our political junkie and NPR's political editor. You can read his blog and download his podcast at npr.org/junkie. And Ken's got a verdict on our trivia question.
We were looking for the most-recent three Cabinet officials elected to the Senate.
RUDIN: Well, Mel Martinez was indeed elected Mel Martinez was indeed in the Bush Cabinet, but he is not he is one of the top three, but we still have not named the most-recent Cabinet official elected to the Senate. Mel Martinez is one of them, along with Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole. We need the most-recent former Cabinet official elected to the Senate.
ROBERTS: So we're going to leave that trivia question open for a couple more minutes until we've got the third answer: Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander, and the third one, who is not Mel Martinez.
RUDIN: By the way, Mel Martinez was HUD secretary, not HHS secretary, but yes, he was in the Bush Cabinet.
ROBERTS: In the meantime, on Tuesday, May 18th, Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls to vote in party primaries there. Senator Arlen Specter is running for reelection to the Senate, but for the first time he's running as a Democrat. He switched political parties last year, and he faces a challenge from Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, who represents Pennsylvania's 7th District.
We're going to speak with both Representative Sestak and Senator Specter today. And Pennsylvania voters, we want to hear from you. What question do you have for the candidates? 800-989-8255, and email email@example.com. Or join the conversation on our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
RUDIN: I just want to also say that the Republican candidate, Pat Toomey, was expected to be on the show today, but he came up with this cockamamie excuse: His wife gave birth last night to a very healthy baby boy two weeks earlier than expected. So Pat Toomey could not be on the show. But the excuses these guys come up with not to be on TALK OF THE NATION...
ROBERTS: Right, yes, apparently, they had a baby boy, the couple's third child. Mother and baby are doing fine. So congratulations to the Toomey family. We'll reschedule that interview when the former congressman has a little more time.
RUDIN: The baby's name was actually named Socka(ph), which I didn't expect, but Socka Toomey I always thought would be a nice name.
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ROBERTS: Oh, Ken, wow. Let's hear from William(ph) in Bay Village, Ohio. William, do you know the third Cabinet official elected to the Senate?
WILLIAM (Caller): Is it Mike Johanns from Nebraska? I think he was Ag secretary under the Bush administration.
RUDIN: That is the correct answer. Mike Johanns, secretary of Agriculture under Bush, elected to the Senate from Nebraska, 2008, the most recent Cabinet official elected to the Senate.
ROBERTS: William from Bay Village, Ohio, we're going to put you on hold, and Ken, tell him what he's won?
RUDIN: He's won the love seat and the ottoman and a Political Junkie T-shirt.
ROBERTS: All right...
RUDIN: Well, just the T-shirt.
ROBERTS: Congratulations, William. Joining us now on the line is Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District. Thank you so much for joining us.
Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): It's good to be with you, Rebecca and Ken. Thank you so much.
ROBERTS: So today's example, aside where you are calling, I believe, from the cloakroom in The Capitol, you've been facing some criticism that you spend too much time campaigning and not in Washington.
Rep. SESTAK: Actually, I haven't heard that. I have a 95 percent voting record. But Arlen Specter, you're correct. He doesn't have a Republican record - anything but a Republican record. So rather than, you know, talking about the issue, he did say that I missed some votes, and actually he's right.
Although my voting record is 95 percent, I was decided in July - when the Democratic establishment said we don't want you to run against him, we made a deal in Washington - to go and visit the 67 counties of Pennsylvania. So I missed a few procedural votes, but I also missed votes because my father was in the intensive care unit on his deathbed for four months, nevertheless, between June and July. We laid him to rest in Arlington Cemetery.
I don't bring up that Arlen Specter, since he changed last year to a Democrat, has only five senators with the worst voting attendance record. I don't think that's the issue.
The issue is: What have you done? He's actually supported George Bush, damaged our economy. I went down to Washington to be what's called the most productive legislator in my 50 freshmen legislators my first two years, moving the first money into autism in 12 years in the federal government, the first bill in 17 years for elder abuse protection. That's what I want to talk about: How can we help working families get out of the recession Arlen Specter caused?
ROBERTS: Well, you and Senator Specter have been part of the Pennsylvania delegation together for years before you became primary opponents. What was your relationship like?
Rep. SESTAK: I actually, when I came down to Washington, D.C., after the election, even before I was sworn in, I went over and paid a courtesy call upon him. And I think I needed to. At the time, he was the senior senator from Pennsylvania, now he's the junior senator.
But it isn't about Arlen Specter. It really is about who believes in the policies that will help working families? So Arlen Specter agrees with Pat Toomey and congratulations, Pat, (unintelligible) is that on your son is that there should be a flat tax.
He is the only senator who has proposed a piece of legislation last year on it where multimillionaires, who would be given a $210,000 tax cut. But the 95 percent of working families, all the rest of the taxpayers, would have a $3,000 tax increase to pay for it.
So philosophically, he still agrees with George Bush in trickle-down economics. I believe in a small-business tax cut of 15 percent. I believe in a middle-class tax like child credit care you know, doubling that.
But I believe we have to close the tax loophole that Arlen Specter voted for for large corporations, where they get a tax credit if they invest in a foreign factory.
So he and I just have philosophical differences of how to help working families. So it's not about Arlen Specter or Joe Sestak. It's what do you believe, and will you be a person of principle when you get down there, and don't change your position or your party in order to try to win an election. Will you be willing to lose your job over what you believe and what you ran on?
RUDIN: Congressman, he's a Arlen Specter has been running - he was elected, first elected in 1980. So he's been around for such a long time. He has the endorsement of President Obama, Governor Ed Rendell, even though he was a Republican until April 28th, 2009. The question is, there's a new poll that has you within seven points of Arlen Specter. It was 21 points last month. What has, in your opinion, what has changed the dynamic of this race?
Rep. SESTAK: As you know, most of the undecided most of the polls had shown there was about 50 percent undecided. For a 30-year incumbent Republican senator who switched parties because, in his words, his prospects were bleak in a Republican primary against Pat Toomey, they just had already made their verdict.
They weren't for him, but they didn't know Joe Sestak. I mean, I was in the Navy 31 years. I've only been a congressman three. And I'm running against the Democratic establishment because I think that they forgot that a Republican who helped damage our economy shouldn't be rewarded.
So now they've gotten to know me. I've been to over 500 events since 1 January until now, and we've started going on the media. And now they have a choice.
But more than anything else, I think the undecided showed this: They believe Washington's broken. The career politicians will do anything to keep their job. They lost trust in the politicians. They want a public servant, not a senior person who has been there a long time. They want a public servant who's willing to lose their job.
So that's what I'm doing, and that's why, Ken, I didn't run for my congressional job simultaneously, even though I could have, because I wanted to show them I was willing to lose my job for them.
And if you don't mind, as we're talking, I'm just going to switch to a BlackBerry to walk 50 feet, put my card in to vote, and I can talk and finish up after the five seconds I put it in. Is that all right?
ROBERTS: All right, absolutely. You go switch your phone. We are going to actually hear....
Rep. SESTAK: I don't want to get a 94.9 percent voting record.
ROBERTS: Right. We're going to hear from some of your voters. This is Tommy(ph) in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Tommy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TOMMY (Caller): Thank you very much. Lifelong Democrat here, just joined the Sestak supporters as a virtual phone-bank worker, and I wanted to ask Congressman Sestak why he's continuing to campaign against Arlen Specter when he's closing on him so fast. We need to shut out Toomey, and you're losing time by campaigning against Arlen Specter, who in my considered opinion cannot win.
Rep. SESTAK: That's a great point. I'm back in the cloakroom now. I put the BlackBerry down, and I'm on the regular phone. Can you hear me fine, Ken?
ROBERTS: We can.
Rep. SESTAK: Perfect. Here's I have actually debated Pat Toomey twice because I wanted to demonstrate I can more than go toe-to-toe with him. And in fact, in a previous interview, and as I did here, I will match Pat Toomey with Arlen Specter because when I debated Pat Toomey, I said Pat, Arlen Specter will only debate me once, downtown Philadelphia during the Mets-Phillies game on a Saturday night. And there's no transparency. I said Pat, you voted identical as Arlen Specter did. So why don't I debate you?
See, they both believe in the flat tax, and so you're right. I am I just want to make sure though because in the Navy I learned don't work past the first opponent until you've won to the next one, but I did enough to make sure people understood.
Last summer I debated him in health care in his home town of Allentown. Then I did at La Salle University on the economy, and when I won - we will win because Arlen Specter is the best get-out-the-vote you can have for the Republican side because he portrayed them. He left them. And second, Pat Toomey, when he polls against Arlen Specter, gets 50 percent of the vote. Against me, it's only 33 percent of the vote.
And so there's almost an anti-Specter type of sentiment. But you're right, and we're switching to it, but I've got to make sure we get past the 18 May primary. And I so appreciate your support very much for the phone banks. We're making about 8,000 calls a day now.
ROBERTS: Had you planned to run for the Senate before Senator Specter switched parties?
Rep. SESTAK: No, well, and yes. I was asked in February by Senator Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in February to run against him when Arlen was a Republican, and I demurred.
I said, look, I got in to pay back this nation in health care. After 31 years, my daughter got a brain tumor, cancer. That's why I voluntarily put in my letter to retire. And I could have stayed three years as an admiral, vice admiral, but if retiring early as one year, you - I had to retire as a two-star, but my daughter had a brain tumor. So therefore, I got in and I ran for health care.
So at first, I said - and demurred. I said, this is what I got in for. After two months, other senators calling - I agreed in April. Now, Arlen Specter switched parties and I was told - I was asked to sit down, kind of told. That's when I took that tour in July to determine if this really is something I should do now, (unintelligible) be run against the establishment.
I did miss a few vote. The women's basketball team was recommended, who's the national champions, things like that. But this: I then decided that people are hurting so bad. When I met this farmer who said when I asked him, how's the recession? And he replied, not too bad. I was hurting already so much. I said, someone who has actually supported George Bush four out of five times, much like Pat Toomey and Rick Santorum, and who actually said to Rick Santorum, if you endorse me, I'll give my next two votes for whomever President Obama nominates for the Supreme Court. I said, that's not the kind of senator we want.
We need an independent-minded person who believe in Democratic principles but can work in a principle compromise with the other side. And that's when I decided during that tour.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Adam(ph) in Philadelphia. Adam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ADAM (Caller): Hi. I'm from Philadelphia, as you mentioned, I'm sorry. And I'm just curious, it appears as though Senator Specter is very good at the sausage-making of kind of getting bills passed. And I'm just worried that as this health care kind of get contentious and a couple of people lose their seats (technical difficulty) in the House of Representatives, what are you going to be able to do to ensure that we don't roll back many of the gains that we've gotten? And how's that going to work for you because I think you're less prone sausage-making than he is.
Rep. SESTAK: Yes, absolutely. First off, I want you to know that my district has - which, as you know, abuts Philadelphia, is - was - is 55 percent Republican, 33 percent Democrat. It's a little - changes now, about 53 Republican. So I've always had to work across the aisle.
And in Washington, in my - with my first two years, I was called the most productive legislator because I could work across the aisle, in the autism bill I mentioned, on the small business contracting bill that got signed into law, which Defense Department cannot - no longer give out of contract unless they've done a search for small business to do it, items like that. Last year, actually, I passed more bills than either other senator from Pennsylvania.
And so, my ability from the Navy to try to bring people together in a team and work, I intend to do that. But I don't intend to do it like Ben Nelson did. When he waited till the end and said, you don't get my vote unless I can extort this for special interest. I want to be like - more like Ted Kennedy was: a principle compromise at the beginning. He did it on immigration with George Bush. He did it on education. I want to help shape the bills, not wait till the very end.
As I've watched others do, that say, okay now, what can I kind of get out of it? I think Pennsylvania needs a (unintelligible) a leader who tries to actually shape bills like I've done so far. And in my district, for example, we've increased our small business contracts threefold from the federal government, over $80 million a year, by bringing 1,200 businessmen and women together with the federal contracting agents of the small businesses of each of the (unintelligible) agencies in an annual conference. So there are ways to affect things by bring them together. And I tend to do even better than has ever have been done.
ROBERTS: Our guest is Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, running in the Democratic primary against Senator Arlen Specter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Ken Rudin, let's get you back in this conversation.
RUDIN: Well, also, now, the last time Senator Specter ran for reelection, he was endorsed and in turn endorsed President Bush and Senator Santorum. This year, he's endorsed by President Obama and Governor Rendell. I mean, which Arlen Specter do you run against because there are two Arlen Specters, as everybody seems to understand here?
Rep. SESTAK: Well, it's interesting. I run against both Arlen Specters, because it isn't a Democrat or a Republican. It seems at times, as someone once said, it's the Specter party, because that's the issue, really the defining issue. Who do you trust? Arlen Specter, I can respect him, but I disagree that you should switch a party after having been the chairman of not only President Nixon's Pennsylvania presidential campaign but also President Bush's.
In fact, even last August, after he was a Democrat, Arlen Specter said that I still believe - he said this on MSNBC - that McCain-Palin were the better choice. I voted for President Obama. I believed in his Democratic principles not because of political calculation of switching a party, but because of what I believe in. And so, therefore, that's really the issue.
People in Pennsylvania - when I went to the six, seven counties - said, Washington is broken. And I think if you still just say, well, the career politicians that'll switch parties or their jobs, you know, and telling Rick Santorum will give President Bush his votes on the next two Supreme Court nominees just so that he can get his endorsement isn't the type of public servant we want any longer. I respect that that's what they've done. The sausage-making? No, no. I don't believe in that. What I do believe in is shaping it in a principle compromised way, and that's what I intend to bring about and that's really what I'm running on.
ROBERTS: We - Congressman, we have an email from Lisa(ph) who says, I'm a Pennsylvania Democrat who has voted for both Specter and Sestak. I'm not entirely sure which way I'll be voting, but I'm annoyed by Joe Sestak's beating the he-switched-parties drum. I'm sick of partisan politics in general. I don't care which team you're on in D.C. I want to know that you're on my side. And the argument about doing anything to keep his job isn't doing a good job - something you do to keep your job.
Rep. SESTAK: Well, that's a good - very good point. And I respect Lisa's point on that. On the other hand, it is something which I have to explain why I ran. Remember, I was asked to run against him and then told to sit down. And I really strongly believe that I would like someone who got into the Democratic Party because of what they believed in, not because they couldn't win. And I respect Lisa's opinion, and she is right for what she says. But I also believe this, that we have put out a Pennsylvania working families plan, which has called for small business tax cuts, which has actually called for a change in how we address education, why I went to education committee and moved $62 billion, with others, with no added cuts to the - no adding to the national debt into Pell grants and subsidized loans.
I came down here to fight for health care and yet I want to do more by removing the antitrust exemption from the health insurance plans. But, unfortunately, when we had the debate on Saturday night, I didn't hear Arlen say where he felt we were or where we should go, but I have laid these proposals out in over 500 events since 1 January. And she's right, I think I have to say both is, here's what I'm fighting for, here's what I believe in out of core conviction. But much as you have asked me questions of how do you run against Arlen Specter as a Republican or Democrat, I said, look, it's tough because I don't know where he'll be after 18 May if he would win. And so I try to be honest on what I see and how the contrast between the two.
ROBERTS: Congressman John - Joe Sestak represents Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District. Thanks so much.
Rep. SESTAK: Thank you so much, Rebecca and Ken, for having me on and for all the questions. And Lisa, I thought that was a great question.
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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
Ken Rudin is with us for an extended edition of the Political Junkie today with a focus on Pennsylvania in advance of the Pennsylvania primaries on May 18th. We're talking with the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, earlier with Joe Sestak and next with the incumbent Senator Arlen Specter. And I should mention the Republican candidate Pat Toomey was also supposed to join us, but last night his wife gave birth to a baby boy so he is busy today. We will reschedule that interview for another time.
And Pennsylvania voters, we want to hear from you. What question do you have for the Democratic candidates? 800-989-8255, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Democratic Senator Arlen Specter. He has represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate since 1981. Before that, he was the district attorney of Philadelphia. And Senator Specter joins us today by phone from his office here in Washington. It's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Thank you. Nice to talk to you and your listeners. I appreciate the invitation.
ROBERTS: So it's been just about a year since you switched parties. With a year's worth of reflection, was it the right move?
Sen. SPECTER: I think so. I supported the stimulus package. The country was about to slide into a 1929 depression. The Republican caucus was intransigent, stonewalling. And I played a key role in getting the stimulus package enacted, and I think that was correct. The Republicans were very unhappy with my independent decision on that. For years, they have called me a RINO, that is a Republican in name only.
I had voted on the big issues more often with the Democrats than Republicans in any event in a independent way. I had supported raising the minimum wage and supported a woman's right to choose, had oppose the warrantless wiretapping program on the terrorist surveillance program. I had led the fight against Bork, so it was comfortable. And I was able to provide the 60th vote to get comprehensive health care reform, so I think it was a sound decision.
ROBERTS: There was a poll out this week - Ken Rudin referred to it earlier from Quinnipiac - that showed Congressman Sestak closing the gap. You are now leading in that poll 47 percent to 39 percent as compared to a 21-point lead you enjoyed earlier in April. What do you account for that closing?
Sen. SPECTER: Well, polls tend to fluctuate. Some of them have been even closer. There's only one poll that counts on the election day, but I've always been prepared for a tough battle. I'm used to that and we'll see what the verdict comes from the jury.
RUDIN: Senator Specter, Pat Toomey says, you know, or at least he said before April 28th, 2009, that you are not a real Republican. Joe Sestak said today on TALK OF THE NATION that you're not a real Democrat. When Arlen Specter looks in the mirror, what do you see in the mirror?
Sen. SPECTER: I see someone who has been independent. I call the votes as I see them. When I saw the country in serious economic distress and the need for a stimulus, I didn't pay attention to being on the Republican side of the aisle. I was concerned with what was good for America, what was good for Pennsylvania. Brought $16 billion to our state, a billion dollars for highway construction. It's paying now for unemployment compensation. It's paying for Medicaid, medical care for the poor. And I think that's what's good for the country.
And when Ted Kennedy came to me years ago, one of the cosponsor for hate crimes legislation, I was the only one on that side of the aisle who would support him. And I'm proud to be independent and to call each vote as I see it. I think that's what the people of Pennsylvania sent me here to do.
ROBERTS: The numbers of undecided in this race - while closing, of course as the election day approaches - have been pretty high, which means that a lot of emphasis ends up on the TV campaign. You have been rolling this ad...
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Unidentified Man: Joe Sestak, relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate. Joe Sestak, the worst attendance of any Pennsylvania congressman and near the bottom of the entire Congress. Last year alone, Sestak missed 127 votes. Sestak says the missed votes weren't important. He went campaigning instead. Let's say no to no-show Joe.
ROBERTS: And you've also had an ad insinuating that he was relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate. Do you stand behind that strategy?
Sen. SPECTER: Well, the congressman paints over the facts with a broad brush and doesn't face the facts. He doesn't give you the whole story. He says they were procedural votes. Well, that's not true. There were votes on appropriations, there were votes on student loan. And when you have the worst voting record of anybody in the Pennsylvania delegation -listen, we're sent down here to vote.
When you refer to his Navy record, it's not Arlen Specter who said poor command climate. That's what the Navy Times said. An admiral was quoted by the Post-Gazette, in much harsher terms, said that when he was in the Navy, he was tyrannical, that he commanded by fear and intimidation.
And in the debate on Saturday night, I said to him: Hey, you called me a liar, I think I'm entitled to an apology. I've been in public service for 43 years, counting the time as DA and assistant counsel to the Warren Commission under the United States Senate. Now, you can resolve this factual matter if you simply authorize the release of your records. And he refused to do that, so that we have a situation where there's a disagreement.
Listen, I'm not quarreling with his record overall. But when he advertises a 60-second commercial, a million - $1,600,000 - I think the voters are entitled to have the whole picture. So, let him release the records. I continue that challenge. So far, he has stonewalled.
RUDIN: Senator, you've talked about your independence and you certainly were one of the more independent, if not the most independent Republican senator. Would you have switched parties if you were not facing a tough primary with Pat Toomey?
Sen. SPECTER: Well, I really felt more comfortable as a Democrat. I voted so often with the Democrats and I wanted to join what the Obama administration was doing. I was candid and said that my prospects were bleak. Look here, you've got a situation in the country which is going far to the right. I had a close victory over Toomey. I beat him before. And I think I'm the only guy to beat him again.
But let me deal with your question, specifically. You got a guy like Governor Crist who leaves the Republican Party to run as an independent because the party has gone so far to the right. You have a senator like Kay Bailey Hutchison, loses a primary in Texas for governor because the party has gone so far to the right. You have John McCain running in a primary in Arizona and it appears that he's not conservative enough for the Republican Party.
RUDIN: And Bob Bennett in Utah.
Sen. SPECTER: Well, Bob Bennett in Utah. You can go further. You have Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. He wants to talk to Democrats about global warming and they file resolutions of disapproval. That's what happened to me. So, it really isn't a matter of where I stand. It's a matter of where the party has moved. It's the old saying, I didn't leave the Republican Party, they left me. And Crist leaving, Hutchison and McCain and virtually a lot of people who have independence and some note of moderation.
ROBERTS: But, Senator, when you left the party in that press conference, you said, I'm not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. What are you learning about the Pennsylvania Democratic primary electorate? Thats not an electorate youve had to work with before?
Sen. SPECTER: Rebecca, I've been very warmly received. The Democratic State Committee met and they endorsed me with 76 percent of the vote. I've gotten the support of the president, of Governor Rendell, a person I've known for many years, gave him his first job out of law school when I was district attorney. You have Vice President Joe Biden. Nobody in the Senate knows me as well as Joe Biden. We have ridden Amtrak for 30 years. And he had tried for a long time to get me to become a Democrat, going back to my roots.
To give you just a little fuller picture, my parents were immigrants, very hard-hit during the Depression. They were Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrats. I was a John F. Kennedy Democrat. When he was assassinated, I went to Washington to help the Warren Commission on the investigation. When I came back to Philadelphia, I wanted to run for district attorney on the Democratic ticket. And I talked to the party leader who said, we do not want a tough, honest district attorney in Philadelphia. The Republicans then said, run on our ticket. We haven't won an election in a very long time. No strings attached. You know that you can - I ran as a registered Democrat on the Republican ticket.
And for years, I tried to bring some moderation to the party. When I came to the Senate in the 1980 election, we had Danforth of Missouri and Hatfield of Oregon and Mathias(ph) and Chafee. It was a very, very different party. And I no longer fit in the Republican Party when I voted for the stimulus, and that's why I returned to my roots.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from one of your voters. This is Whitney(ph) in Philadelphia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
WHITNEY (Caller): Oh, thank you so much. And, Ken Rudin, I'm a huge fan and I love TALK OF THE NATION, as well. I appreciate voting according to what deems - what one deems the people need. And I am an independent, though I'm on the Democratic Party right now, signed up for them so I can vote.
But I wonder how you will be able to reach those far right Republicans. What will you be doing to try to bring people across and work harder to compromise? Because I feel like the government - I'm fed up with it. I'm fed up with the extremes. I'm fed up with nothing - it really seems like nothing much is getting accomplished. Set up with Wall Street, and the CDOs and the (unintelligible) and a lot of the things that I don't understand but grasp a little bit. So I'm wondering what might you do to really try to draw in more of Republicans to come to compromise.
Sen. SPECTER: Well, I'm in a good position to do that and I have done it in the course of the past year since crossing the aisle. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I know the ins and outs, worked very closely with Senator Collins and Senator Snowe, Senator Voinovich, Senator Graham. And we're able to get some breakthroughs on the vacation, on the payroll tax, and on paying unemployment compensation, and I've been working on those matters. And I'm working across the aisle right now on Wall Street reform in my capacity as chairman of the Criminal Law Subcommittee.
I had a hearing yesterday, and working to see to it that we have jail sentences for Wall Street fraud. It's not enough to impose fines. All they do is then put that as part of the cost of doing business. But I have worked across the aisle continuously during my entire tenure, and Im in a position to do that. My experience and seniority will be much more beneficial for Pennsylvania and for America.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken Rudin?
RUDIN: Senator, one of the things that I felt were most dramatic about 2009 was your town hall meeting in this summer. At the time, we all thought that President Obama and his policies were fairly popular. We saw tremendous anger at that town hall meeting, and we didn't know if you were going to be personally attacked or physically attacked. What's happened to this country in the time since youve been elected?
Sen. SPECTER: Well, I came very close to being physically attacked in that town hall meeting. The Tea Party group was out in force. A man stood up, he was apoplectic, screaming at me, approached me with clenched fist. Security moved in, wanted to throw the man out, and I stopped them. I didn't want the headline to read: Citizen evicted. I wanted the headline to read: Senator keeps his cool.
And that town meeting is a good illustration of how I was out there defending the comprehensive health care plan. When I was out there facing tough town meetings, I had them all the across the state, the Tea Party gang followed me to state college, (unintelligible) and all across Pennsylvania. Congressman Sestak was sitting safely back in his office. He didn't go out to those town meetings.
And when the Democratic Party wants to keep the seat, and President Obama wants to keep the seat, they know very well that Congressman Sestak is not the guy that - we had a debate on Saturday night. John Baer of the Philadelphia Daily News moderated it, and wrote a column afterward and talked about how vigorous I was and how forceful I was. And the comparison, when you saw us on television, I think, made it clear that when you got a tough guy like Toomey, you need somebody who's tough as Arlen Specter.
And I beat him before and I can beat him again. But it's not going to be easy because the Tea Party gang is energized, incumbents have a lot of problems, and that's what - the biggest obstacle I face. It's not my opponent, it's the mood across the country that's anti-incumbent.
But when people take a look at what I've done in all my tenure, crossing the party lines, trying to work together, trying to fashion legislation, I think - if I'm successful in getting that message across, I'll be reelected. And that's why I'm glad to have a chance to talk to your sophisticated, intelligent listening audience.
ROBERTS: We have an email from one of the sophisticated, intelligent listeners. Adam(ph), who says: would you say the Republicans are moving far right due to the current rise of the left? Is this productive for the party?
Sen. SPECTER: Well, both parties are moving in extreme directions. You have a senator like Joe Lieberman who can't win a Democratic primary. Under Connecticut law - the laws all different - he could run as an independent. But I think America wants to be governed from the center, and that's where I've been, opposing extreme judges like Judge Bork, who thought that equal protection did not apply to women, opposing warrantless wiretapping which encroach on civil liberties and maintaining strong national defense at the same time, being for labor, for the working men and women. And the AFL-CIO endorsed me while I was a Republican. My voting record hasn't changed, it's the party structure which has changed.
ROBERTS: Incumbent Democratic Senator Arlen Specter joined us today by phone from his office in Washington. Thank you so much for your time.
Sen. SPECTER: Thank you. Let me compliment NPR in what you do, and appreciate a chance to talk to your audience.
ROBERTS: Thank you. The Pennsylvania Democratic and Republican primaries are on Tuesday, May 18th.
And Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie joined us here in Studio 3A, as he does every Wednesday. You can read his blog and download his podcast at npr.org/junkie. Thanks, Ken.
RUDIN: Thank you, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.