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Expert Examines Specter's Party Switch


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Arlen Specter says the Republican Party has abandoned him. The senior senator from Pennsylvania, first elected in 1980, abandoned the GOP today. Senator Specter will seek re-election as a Democrat and will be accorded the seniority of a five-term senator, not a freshman. As a Republican, he faced a primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. And he admitted to a Washington news conference that he would likely lose that race.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I have traveled the state, surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, done public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us now is Randall Miller, history professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Professor Miller, Arlen Specter survived a primary challenge from Pat Toomey in 2004, why are his chances so much worse in 2010?

Professor RANDALL MILLER (History Department, Saint Joseph's University): Well, there are a lot of reasons, but principally, there are two, I think, that come to fore. One is that the Republicans themselves are trying to find an identity and they are repeating a mantra of fiscal conservatism that's playing very well for Republicans across the country. And related to that is that Specter's vote on the stimulus package really stung a lot of Republicans in Pennsylvania, even though most people in Pennsylvania supported the move.

Polling show that Specter - who's always polled better from Democrats than Republicans - after the stimulus vote, his polls among Republicans just went way down. And when he did all his political calculations that factored in, no doubt, of how many of those people could he ever get back, even though he has a huge war chest, wasn't really worth the effort.

SIEGEL: Now, he says that the nature of the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania has changed a great deal. So many people have changed registration there.

Prof. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, that's actually been a process that'd been going for some time - people moved over for us, and is especially true for the four counties and around Philadelphia. In Philadelphia they have about 40 percent of the votes who have been very supportive of Arlen Specter in the general election.

But many of them, Republicans, began to move away from the Republican Party and go over to the Democrats, first to support Ed Rendell, who is very popular in the region. And then now, of course, in the 2008 run for the Democratic primary, presidential primary, a lot of people wanted to get in on that action, and they moved as well.

And once unanchored from the Republican Party - and there were a lot of reasons for it. They didn't necessarily even agree with Republican policy, especially on social conservatism. Specter worried, of course, that there's - could he find some way to bring them back in. And, again, the cost of doing so was such that he figured, no, they'll vote in the general election. They'll vote for me. And that's basically the hand he's dealt himself.

SIEGEL: Well, you say that the Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to define themselves, and they're defining themselves around fiscal conservatism, largely. What does it do to them for Specter to leave?

Prof. MILLER: Well, it's an interesting question because, in fact, there still is a split among Republicans. Not all the moderates have de-camped to the Democrats, A. B, there are social conservatives. One of the most interesting things about the election, if it had occurred at the Republican primaries, not only would you have Pat Toomey running again with a lot of money both from inside and especially outside the state, fiscal conservative, but there was also a social conservative, Peg Luksik, an anti-abortion foe who was trying to rally those forces.

And the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives do not necessarily sit down together and hold hands. So it's not clear that Specter leaving the Republicans solves all the internal problems of the Republicans here or, indeed, elsewhere.

SIEGEL: Randall Miller, thanks a lot for talking with us (unintelligible).

Prof. MILLER: You bet.

SIEGEL: Professor Randall Miller of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia on today's news about Arlen Specter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.