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Specter’s Party Switch Puts GOP on Defensive

Republican Strategists Still Say They Are Hopeful Specter’s Move Will Bolster Party Faithful

Just as Senate Republicans were finding their political footing, the shock of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) abandoning them for the Democratic Party left GOP Senators scrambling to maintain their relevance — even as they conceded that nothing short of winning more seats in 2010 could reverse their slide.

Senate Republican leaders on Tuesday signaled that their Conference would both accelerate its outreach and step up its rhetorical pressure on moderate Democrats in a bid to shape policy without the filibuster threat Specter took with him when he bolted the GOP.

Specter’s move left Senate Republicans one seat short of 41, the minimum number required to sustain the parliamentary stalling tactic.

“No doubt [that] changes the dynamics greatly, there’s no question about that,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “That’s the obvious result of what happened.”

Republicans expect the Senate’s center of gravity to shift, and now plan to focus less on the legislative strategy of Conference unity and more on political messaging that targets Democrats.

“I think there will be enormous pressure ... on red state Democrats who ran as moderates to actually vote as moderates,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “To the extent that they give a left-leaning agenda a blank check, they will be voting differently from the way they ran. So I think all the pressure now will be on largely, newly elected Senators from red states.”

In the wake of Specter claiming he was chased out of an increasingly conservative GOP after 43 years for his moderate views, Senate Republican leaders insisted their party was nationally viable and pledged to recruit candidates for the midterm elections who could compete across the political spectrum of red, blue and swing states.

But with several competitive open seats and more Senate seats to defend overall than Democrats, Republicans are clearly on the defensive and could find themselves overmatched, particularly if President Barack Obama’s high approval ratings continue as the 2010 elections approach.

With the president hitting the 100-day mark of his administration today, polls show his personal and job approval ratings in excess of 60 percent, while the GOP and Congressional Republicans continue to rank lower than they have in decades.

“It’s a very disappointing day for all Republicans,” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said. “When you’re looking forward to 2010, and you’re thinking, we’re at 41 now, where can we get to if we pick up a few seats on our way back to a majority, this just sets you one more seat behind.”

Republican Senators were clearly reeling; the initial reaction from the GOP Conference was one of surprise and resignation. Many Republicans noted that Specter only became a Democrat because he faced rejection from his now former fellow Republicans at home, as polling showed he could not win his primary against ex-Rep. Pat Toomey (R).

Should comedian Al Franken (D) prevail over former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in the delayed, 2008 Minnesota Senate race — as is expected — the Democrats will hold a 60-40 advantage in the chamber.

Coleman has challenged Franken’s narrow victory; his appeal of a lower state court’s decision affirming Franken’s election to the Senate is scheduled to be heard in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On a host of issues, what Specter’s party-affiliation shift means is still unclear.

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