Arlen Specter gives an early 100th-day present to President Obama.

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April 28 2009 3:13 PM

Specter's Defection

A Pennsylvania senator gives an early 100th-day present to President Obama.

For Arlen Specter, apparently, simply washing his hands wasn't enough to stop the contagion. With the Republican Party at historically low approval ratings, moderate Northeastern Republicans an endangered species, and a primary challenge from the right, the five-term senator from Pennsylvania has switched parties. "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," he said in a statement. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

There may be better 100th-day presents to President Obama, but they probably require witchcraft. Specter's decision would give Democrats a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, assuming Democrat Al Franken is eventually sworn in as the next senator from Minnesota (and Specter's switch might change Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's thinking about certifying that race). The president received word during his daily economic briefing. One of his staffers handed him a note saying, "Specter is announcing he is changing parties." Seven minutes later, Obama was on the phone to Specter. "We're thrilled to have you," the president said, telling Specter he had his "full support."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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In his statement, Specter insisted that he would not be "a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans." And Specter, who has followed his own way throughout his career, will no doubt make good on his word. Just to make sure, he noted in his statement that his recent vote against legislation to make union organizing easier "will not change."

But that doesn't mean that Specter can't calibrate his position a little more carefully. He can't do a complete about-face on the bill. But nor does he have to join with opponents of the bill who hope to block it through filibuster. The bill has strong union support, and he'll need union support against a Democratic primary opponent. If he promised not to join the filibuster, he could give unions what they want without making an outright switch. Wal-Mart stock certainly was affected by the notion that Specter might help the unions. (Update, April 29: Specter has since clarified his positon that he's not going to invoke cloture.)

The Democratic political field was already shifting as a result of the announcement. Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Josh Shapiro, who was considering a candidacy, announced that he would not run. "Senator Specter is now the incumbent Democratic Senator," Shapiro said. Joe Torsella, on the other hand, announced that he was not dropping out of the race. Torsella, who has never held elected office, raised $500,000 in the first quarter. Will he bow out? Will Democratic leaders try to make him?

Obama is a key player to watch in the days ahead. When he told Specter that he's offering his "full support," does that mean he will be campaigning for Specter in the Democratic primaries? Maybe Obama will sit out. What about Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell? He goes way back with Specter, to their early days in the Philadelphia district attorney's office. They are still close.

Specter explains his party switch.

When Specter ran for Senate in 1998, he used a Rendell press conference thanking him for his help in establishing Philadelphia's National Constitution Center in a television ad. And who was the first president and CEO of that center, the man who helped make it a reality? That would be Joe Torsella. He was also a deputy mayor under Rendell. Oh, and Specter's wife once worked for the center, and Torsella's wife once worked for Specter. Who says Pennsylvania is a big state?

Also up in the air are what deals, if any, were made in the Senate with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid's been working on Specter for years. The negotiations intensified in recent months perhaps because of Pennsylvania's election rules: Unlike his colleague Joe Lieberman, Specter could not run in a party primary, lose, and then run as an independent.

Those who know Specter are pretty certain he didn't switch parties to sit on the back bench. He cares about his positions on the appropriations and judiciary committees. During his campaigns, he has always talked about "clout" that comes with his seniority. He'll want to return to that theme when he runs again.

By joining the Democratic Party, Specter is in some ways returning to his roots. In 1965, when he ran for Philadelphia district attorney, he thought he'd do it as a Democrat—but the party machine didn't want him, so he ran on the other ticket. * Since then, he has governed in the mode of Hugh Scott, the longtime moderate from the same state. Specter has long been considered by die-hard Republicans a RINO (Republican in Name Only). In 1996, he ran for president on a pro-choice platform, which didn't get him very far. This year, he was one of three GOP senators to back Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who ran against Specter once before and almost beat him, used that vote as the launching pad for his candidacy. The Republican Party has lost a lot of voters over the last years, and polling showed Toomey up by 10 points in a GOP primary. Specter was considered a political dead man walking. There's not yet any reliable polling with Specter as a Democrat, but at least now the two-time cancer survivor has a fighting chance to reach the general election.

Update, 7:09 p.m.: Before Specter was a Democrat, Joe Torsella (now his Democratic primary opponent) called him to let him know that he was getting into the race. This morning Specter returned the favor, calling Torsella to let him know that he was switching parties and that he would now be Torsella's opponent sooner than anyone thought. Specter's opponent was apparently so surprised, he had very little else to say other than to thank Specter for the courtesy. A source close to the campaign reaffirms that even though Obama and Gov. Rendell are likely to work for Specter, Torsella is staying in the race. A source familiar with Democratic senatorial campaigns reminds that such a stalwart posture can mean Torsella really isn't going anywhere—but it might also mean that he's negotiating for something in exchange for being a good Democrat and clearing the way for Specter.

Correction, April 28, 2009: This article mistakenly said Specter ran for Pennsylvania state attorney general in 1965. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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