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Specter Switch Could Send Ripples Far and Wide for Both Parties

But now, with Specter switching teams and Democrats about to have 60 seats after Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is seated, Lincoln can’t count on the GOP restraining the Democratic majority. She and her more moderate allies in the Democratic Conference — from Nebraska’s Ben Nelson to Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and even Indiana’s Evan Bayh — will have to be the ones who restrain their colleagues, if they have the political will.

This is also likely to be true for dozens of House Democrats who were elected from Southern and rural districts, and who will now be expected by their constituents to be more active in blocking higher taxes, bigger deficits and government expansion.

While those Democrats are still free to vote against their party — thereby establishing their “independence” and “moderation” — they also must know that their political standing back home rests as much on what their party does on Capitol Hill as how they vote as individual legislators.

For Lincoln, for example, voting against big-ticket, big-government Democratic initiatives may not be enough to inoculate her against Republican attacks blaming her party for the country’s direction.

Indeed, this is exactly what happened to Republicans across the country the past two cycles, in swing districts that were both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning. Many Republicans, such as then-Sens. Jim Talent (Mo.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) and then-Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Nancy Johnson (Conn.), lost not because voters were particularly angry with them, but because voters were unhappy and angry with Washington and the GOP.

The good news for Republicans now is that Democrats own everything, giving greater salience to the GOP argument that voters (and contributors) need to support Republican candidates and the party’s campaign committees so that Democrats don’t have a “blank check.”

Specter’s switch may also embolden Democrats in the nation’s capital to move further left than what the country is comfortable with, causing a voter backlash and internal party fissures. This could, in turn, bring a new focus by the media on differences within the Democratic Party rather than on differences between the two parties.

Democrats have every reason to be euphoric about Specter’s switch, but at the end of the day, it may not be the game changer that they hope. For grass-roots Republicans, Specter’s switch ought not be an opportunity to celebrate, but rather, a time to consider the party’s stunning demise.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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