Of all the great stories involving primary contests for the Senate this year, perhaps no story is better than what is happening in Pennsylvania. Arlen Specter, who left the GOP last year to become a Democrat, is seeking a sixth term in November.
In all his years in politics — he was first elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965 — Specter has, shall we say, had his differences with Republicans. In 1976, when he first ran for the Senate, he lost the GOP primary to then-Rep. John Heinz. Two years later he ran for governor but lost that primary as well, to Dick Thornburgh.
Elected to the Senate in 1980, Specter first had to get by Bud Haabestad in the primary, who had the backing of both Heinz and Thornburgh. Both the primary and the later November general election against Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty (D) were close.
In the Senate he exasperated both sides. His pro-abortion rights stance hurt him with the right, while his support for Presidents Reagan and Bush, as well as his grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings infuriated the left.
Specter had another close call in the '92 election, following the Thomas-Hill hearings, barely winning re-election over Democrat Lynn Yeakel in what was known as the Year of the Woman.
But it was 2004 when his history of party transgressions almost ended his career. He was being challenged by conservative Rep. Pat Toomey in the GOP primary, his first serious Republican challenge since coming to the Senate. If it weren't for key endorsements in that contest from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum, he probably would not have survived. He defeated Toomey with less than 51 percent of the vote.
(Toomey is the all-but-certain GOP nominee this year.)
In his first outing as a Democratic senator, Specter's once-cakewalk to the nomination — he immediately won the endorsement of President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell, and the big labor unions — has hit a serious impediment in two-term Rep. Joe Sestak. There is clearly a shift in momentum towards Sestak, who holds a small, but significant, lead in new polling. Much of the campaign is about Specter, and what he truly stands for.
I can't recall the last time a member of the Senate was endorsed in back-to-back campaigns by incumbent presidents of different parties:
The President Endorses Sen. Arlen Specter. Again.
NPR's Don Gonyea profiles the Specter-Sestak primary race tonight on "All Things Considered."