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By Jay Cost

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Is Arlen Specter Safe Now?

The instant reaction to Arlen Specter's decision to switch parties was that it is a sign of GOP weakness. My take is that it is just as much a sign of Arlen Specter's weakness. As I wrote yesterday, I think this decision was due to Specter's problems in the state.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has consistently had a three-to-five point Democratic tilt to it. Yet this did not stop Republican John Heinz from winning reelection in 1982 with 59% of the vote (a great year for Democrats), and then with 66% of the vote in 1988. This is the mark of a senator who has cultivated a good personal relationship with his state. Specter's numbers are much less impressive. He won just 53% of the vote in 2004 - despite outspending his opponent 5-to-1. He had an extremely close call in 1992: after he went after Anita Hill on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he squeaked by Lynn Yeakel with just 49% of the vote. His biggest triumph was in 1998, when he won 61% of the vote. Yet he ran against a candidate who spent just $180,000 - and the best he could do was three in five Pennsylvanians.

Specter has never been a particularly strong candidate - and we can talk about the narrow intolerance of the Republican Party, but the fact is that the GOP money machine has consistently had to kick in tens of thousands of dollars every cycle in case Snarlin' Arlen gets himself into trouble, which he regularly does. So, when we're talking about the GOP's intolerance, we're talking about some ill-defined subset of the party, as those who have supported Specter include Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, George W. Bush, the Pennsylvania Republican Party, the Pennsylvania Republicans who have consistently voted for him in the general election, and so on.

So, let's assume for a moment that this "the GOP is a shrinking, pathetic rump" meme had not already taken hold in the press prior to Specter's departure. What would we infer about his decision? It'd be pretty simple: the guy is a lousy candidate who had finally worn out his welcome with his own side. After 28 years in the GOP, his reputation with the state party is so poor that he has to bail more than one year before his primary. Sure metro Philadelphia has lost a boatload of Republican voters - but isn't it amazing that this is enough to make Specter's position unsustainable? For many Pennsylvania residents who live in the west - like myself - this confirms what we have long suspected, Specter should have been labeled (R - Philadelphia). Clearly, this is a politician who has not cultivated a personal relationship with the broader state.

And not just the state GOP. He barely pulled in 60% of the vote in 1998 against a guy who spent a pittance - which means that a solid majority of the Democratic electorate pulled the lever for a guy they had never heard of, instead of Arlen Specter, who had been serving in the Senate for 20 years by that point. These are now Specter's core constituents. He thinks he stands a better chance with them.

Regarding the title question, I'd answer it in the negative. First of all, I would not underestimate Pat Toomey. He won three terms in PA 15 (Allentown), whose presidential vote is basically a microcosm of the country. He is going to have a lot of money - not just from Club for Growth donors, but angry Republicans nationwide. And Specter has handed him a major valence issue: the senior senator from Pennsylvania is above all interested in the senior senator from Pennsylvania. This has long been the rap on Specter - and on Tuesday he confirmed that in a big way. Money and a message are two crucial ingredients to electoral success - and Toomey will have both. I'd say that Toomey is also going to need an anti-incumbent, pro-Republican national mood to help him next year - as Rick Santorum enjoyed in 1994 - but I would not count him out. There is, when it's all said and done, little love lost between Arlen Specter and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Toomey could exploit this.

This, of course, assumes that Specter wins the nomination of the Democratic Party, whose voters split 71-28 against him in the 2004 election. And again, it is a sign of just how much water Specter has drained out of the pool that he thinks he'll stand a better chance with these voters rather than Republicans, who have consistently supported him at levels greater than 80%.

I'll put it simply: a Democrat with credibility, message, and money could give Specter just as much trouble as Toomey was set to. There is a very straightforward strategy to be pursued: win the Democrats who don't particularly care for Specter, either. By and large, this would be working class white Democrats in the west, upper income white liberals in the east, and African Americans of all income groups and ideological dispositions statewide. These groups have voted against Arlen Specter for nearly 30 years. A Democrat who can unite them under his banner could defeat him.

Can that coalition be created? I think so. A candidate who has money would - like Toomey - also have a great valence issue: why shouldn't the Pennsylvania Democratic Party demand a Democrat? In other words, the fact that Arlen Specter really has no partisan loyalty could conceivably hurt him in the Democratic primary, as it had in the GOP.

It is simply a matter of finding a decent candidate who can raise the cash. And before we assume that the Democratic Party establishment - complete with a popular president and a well-heeled party apparatus - can stop money flowing to opponents of Arlen Specter, we should consider the strange case of...Arlen Specter! Despite George W. Bush and the GOP's best efforts in 2004, Pat Toomey still raised $4.5 million. The party establishment can make sure its preferred candidate is funded - but that does not mean that an insurgent challenger cannot find access to dollars, either. Money in politics is like water flowing downhill. Good luck stopping it.

Ultimately, we'll just have to wait and see. If a big name Democrat tosses his or her hat into the ring - that's a sure sign Specter is going to face a real challenge. And again, it's important to keep in mind the timing. It's a year until the primary. Top-line Democrats have time to mull the decision, thanks to Arlen Specter. Again, just a sign of how weak he was in the GOP - he had to jump to the other side so early that any prospective opponent has time to get his or her ducks in a row.

To that end, this is from PA2010:

With the Democratic Party seemingly lining up behind Senator Arlen Specter at the state and national levels, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) has emerged as the most likely candidate to buck party leaders and run against Specter, party insiders and political analysts say.

While Democrats across the state were issuing statements in support of Specter's decision to switch parties Tuesday, Sestak was far more critical. He joined Republicans in lambasting Specter for political opportunism, and would not rule out a campaign of his own. His political profile, his large campaign war chest and his relative lack of ties to the state's Democratic apparatus have made him the odds-on favorite to run.

"Sestak can run to the left [of Specter] because he has military credentials," a House Democratic staffer said of the retired Navy Vice-Admiral.

The staffer added: "There's a lot of Democrats that are angry that [Specter will] be the Democratic nominee, especially since he admitted it was such a political calculation. I think there will be a Democratic primary."

Hmmm...a progressive Democrat with military credentials. It sounds to me like he'd have a leg up with two of those three voting groups: western working class Dems and (mostly eastern) upscale liberals.

Keep an eye on Sestak. Snarlin' Arlen certainly will.

-Jay Cost