Sen. Arlen Specters defection from the GOP rocked Capitol Hill on Tuesday, setting off a round of bitter recriminations from Republicans while giving already cocksure Democrats fresh confidence that they have turned the page on more than a decade of GOP dominance in Washington, D.C.
Specter joins the likes of former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) in choosing to switch his party affiliation a move that could have long-term implications for both Republicans and Democrats.
While Senate Democrats tried their hardest to be gracious about Specters new alliance, even as they used the defection as a fundraising tool to fill the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committees coffers, Republicans largely struggled to come to terms with what the decision meant for their already beleaguered party.
Specters decision to leave the GOP came after recent polling showed that the moderate Republican had little chance of winning a primary contest against Pat Toomey, the former Republican House Member and one-time head of the conservative Club for Growth. Specter said he found that the prospects of winning a Republican primary bleak.
Specter, who previously rebuffed talk that he would consider abandoning the GOP, was wooed actively by Vice President Joseph Biden, President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, to make the switch. Also key was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who also played a pivotal role in Jeffords 2001 switch from the Republican Party and in convincing his fellow Democrats to keep Lieberman in their fold after a November election that gave the Conference a 58-Member majority.
But Specter, whose decision clearly caught his Republican Senate colleagues off guard, laid the blame for his departure squarely at the feet of party conservatives, who he said have made little room for moderates like himself.
Specter said he was disappointed with the reaction from many Republicans, and he charged that national GOP leaders in Washington havent stood up to what he described as a hostile takeover by hard-line social conservatives.
Republicans didnt rally to [former Rep.] Wayne Gilchrest in Maryland ... Republicans didnt rally to the banner of Joe Schwarz in Michigan ... Republicans didnt rally to the banner of [former New Mexico Rep.] Heather Wilson, Specter said, arguing that in each case the Club for Growth and other conservative groups took down moderate Republican lawmakers while party officials stood by. They dont make any bones about their willingness to lose the general election if they can purify the party ... there ought to be a rebellion, there ought to be an uprising of Republicans, Specter said.
But Republican leaders were quick to slam Specter, charging his decision to defect was driven by nothing more than political expediency and a desire to win re-election to the Senate in 2010 at any cost.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that while Republicans have not done well in recent cycles in the Northeast, Specters decision shouldnt be viewed as a failure of his party.