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Sen. Specter announces he'll run in 2010 Democratic primary

| Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sidestepping a predicted bloody primary with a conservative challenger next year, Sen. Arlen Specter on Tuesday said he will quit the Republican Party to join the Democrats, giving President Obama's party tighter control of the Senate.

Specter decided to switch party affiliation after talking with his family and reviewing his campaign's poll numbers. Democrats from Vice President Joe Biden to Sen. Bob Casey Jr. to Gov. Ed Rendell had tried to persuade the moderate Specter to defect, especially after he enraged conservatives by voting for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.

Reading polls and speaking with conservatives in the state convinced Specter that his chances of winning the 2010 Republican primary were "bleak," he said. Bemoaning what he sees as the party's purge of moderates, Specter said he didn't want conservatives to decide his fate.

"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," said Specter, 79, of Philadelphia. "But I am prepared to take on all comers in a general election."

The much-anticipated primary matchup between Specter and former Rep. Pat Toomey might occur instead in the 2010 general election, assuming both men win their respective primaries.

"It certainly does raise serious questions for Pennsylvania voters: Does this man believe in anything other than his personal re-election?" said Toomey, 47, a Lehigh County conservative.

Toomey said he's unconcerned about support Specter likely will get from top Democrats and about the 1.2 million voter-registration advantage Democrats have.

"I was very confident I was going to win this primary election, and obviously Senator Specter was, too," Toomey said. "Now I'm sure we'll win the primary and the general election, but I'm not sure who my Democratic opponent will be."

The switch gives Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, one shy of the number needed to block Republican filibusters, and Democrats could pick up that vote if the Minnesota Supreme Court affirms former comedian Al Franken's election victory.

"It gives us a chance to move the president's agenda forward," said Casey, a Scranton Democrat. "Senator Specter can play a leading role. I believe that, in most instances, he'll be on the same page. That doesn't mean there won't be difficult moments, or that he'll give 100 percent support, but I think in a broad-based way it does help move those priorities forward."

Specter said he "will not be an automatic 60th vote" for Democrats, vowing to continue opposing a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

Specter spent much of his political career near the dividing line between the parties. He was a registered Democrat when he ran on the GOP ticket in his successful 1965 race for Philadelphia district attorney. In February, he was one of three Republicans in Congress who provided crucial votes to pass the stimulus bill.

"When he voted on the stimulus package, that broke his pact with Republicans," said state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason. "He brought this on himself."

Republicans from national party Chairman Michael Steele to Allegheny County party Chairman Jim Roddey characterized Specter's decision as a craven political act.

"He saw the numbers, and he felt he could not get re-elected," Roddey said. "Once you start thinking, 'That's the single most important thing that I have to do, because it is so important that I am in that office and no one else,' then I think you lose sight of why you are there."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cut a deal with Specter to allow him to keep his seniority, which Specter said would help him push Pennsylvania's priorities, such as medical research funding. Specter is the longest-serving senator in state history.

"I do this because there are many projects I want to move ahead for Pennsylvania with my seniority," Specter said.

It's unclear who might challenge Specter for the Democratic Party's nomination next year. Philadelphia businessman Joe Torsella said he plans to stay in the race; state Rep. Josh Shapiro of Montgomery County said he's pulling out; and state Rep. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg said he hasn't decided but is leaning toward running.

Specter's defection made him some fast and powerful friends. He said Obama promised to campaign for him. State and national Democratic leaders are organizing a meeting in Washington to endorse him. Rendell, a prolific fundraiser, once offered to raise money for Specter if he switched parties.

"I responded that if I became a Democrat, I wouldn't need him to raise money," Specter said, adding with a smile, "I changed my mind about that."

The defection sparked fear among some Republicans — and giddy speculation among some Democrats — that the GOP soon might retain influence only in the Deep South.

"We're in an era when the face of the Republican Party is shrinking, rather than expanding," said former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh. Like Specter, Thornburgh blamed a rightward tilt in the state GOP.

"I'm sorry to see him leave the party," he said. "I would have preferred to see him stay in the Republican Party and keep fighting for it to be the big-tent party."

The GOP no longer is competitive in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific West, said Mark Siegel, former Democratic National Committee executive director.

"This marks the end of the Republican Party as a national party that can be competitive in races outside of the Deep South," Siegel said.

Specter said political polarization dragged both parties from moderation.

"The extremes in both parties are taking over. There ought to be a rebellion," Specter said, blaming low voter turnout in primaries for giving disproportionate influence to political activists. Republicans lost control of Congress and couldn't confirm 35 judicial appointments made by President Bush, Specter said.

Specter's former colleague, Rick Santorum, said Specter called him yesterday morning to break the news.

"My only hope is that he will be as equally independent as a Democrat as he was as a Republican," Santorum said. "And that is about the nicest thing I can say at this moment."

Quotes from around the nation

"I think Arlen went home."

— Johnstown Republican and Senate candidate Peg Luksik

"I welcome my old friend to the Democratic Party. Sen. Arlen Specter is a man of remarkable courage and integrity. I know he will remain a powerful and independent voice for Pennsylvania and the country."

— Vice President Joe Biden

"Arlen Specter handed Barack Obama and his band of radical leftists nearly absolute power in the United States Senate. ... Arlen Specter has put his loyalty to his own political career above his duty to his state and nation."

— Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

"This kind of decision, which is so significant, the final word on it ... begins and ends with that person. It's not an easy decision, if they're a serious, substantive person like he is."

— Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton

"It's really indicative of Arlen Specter. Here's a guy who probably should've retired. He wanted to go another term, but just found himself being blocked. I'm not sure he can even get the Democrat nomination."

— Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason

"The notion of moderate Republicans is about dead, and now we're burying it."

— Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster, CEO of The Mellman Group

"It's premature to bury the Republican Party."

— Jim Roddey, Allegheny County Republican Committee chairman

"Mazel tov! Speaking personally, I welcome him with open arms."

— Cyril H. Wecht, former Allegheny County coroner and longtime Democratic politician

"This is the first major political leader in Pennsylvania history to switch parties."

— G. Terry Madonna, pollster and political scientist, Franklin & Marshall College

"This is a huge win for the Democrats. His switch gives them the ability to run the table on every vote. But it also puts enormous pressure on Specter, as well as Southern Democrats who are more independent than their national party."

— Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills

"One thing Arlen excels at is being the tipping-point vote in the Senate, and you can't be the tipping-point vote unless you get re-elected."

— Carnegie Mellon University professor Robert Strauss

"I will not be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010 under these circumstances."

— State Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery County

"I believe we need new leadership, new ideas, and new approaches in Washington. ... Nothing about today's news regarding Sen. Specter changes that, or my intention to run for the Democratic nomination to the Senate in 2010."

— Philadelphia businessman Joe Torsella

"We're going to re-evaluate our options, but I'm leaning toward staying in the race."

— State Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, U.S. Senate candidate

"A filibuster-proof Senate should help the Democrats overcome obstructionist tactics, especially on nominations to the administration and judiciary."

— St. Louis University law professor Joel Goldstein

Additional Information:

Others have switched

To see a list of U.S. senators who have switched parties since 1890, visit the U.S. Senate Web site . Additional Information:

Flash Opinion

For The Tribune-Review's take on Specter's announcement, go here.

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