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Specter Finds Comfort Zone

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Arlen Specter, seen at a memorial service for the late Rep. John Murtha, has fit in comfortably with his new colleagues in the Democratic caucus and has kept friends on the GOP side.

Rep. Joe Sestak’s (Pa.) decision to challenge Specter from the left, combined with the Senator’s need to prove his bona fides to his new party, could explain why he’s no longer a swing vote and the center of attention on major issues before the Senate. Specter said his positions over the course of his career have been consistent but that the context has changed.

“My record, as evidenced from the voting, has been one of independence, not ideological, and I have, I think, on the big issues voted with the Democrats as often — perhaps more often than with the Republicans,” Specter said during an interview in his spacious Capitol Hill office. “When I voted for increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment compensation as a Republican, it stood out like a sore thumb. When I vote that way as a Democrat, nobody notices.”

As Pennsylvania moved more toward the Democratic Party over the past 10 years, the state’s GOP base contracted and moved further to the right. In suburban Philadelphia, Specter’s base, the Republican Party is particularly weak. The Democrats in recent years captured a handful of Republican Congressional districts, the governor’s mansion, and in 2006 Sen. Bob Casey (D) ousted Santorum, winning by 18 points.

Specter’s decision to leave the GOP only solidified a growing disaffection for him at home among Republican voters while alienating longtime Republican backers who stood by him despite his moderate and liberal positions on key issues. But in Washington, D.C., Specter still has friends in the party, including his former fellow GOP Senators and Republicans who work downtown.

One Republican lobbyist with Pennsylvania ties said the secret to Specter’s success is his work ethic and doggedness and the top-notch constituent services delivered by his office. This lobbyist, still a Specter fan, said the Senator’s views have always been to the left of the GOP mainstream but that he managed to win statewide partly because he forged relationships with Democrats as well.

Specter lost Senate and gubernatorial GOP primaries in 1976 and 1978, respectively, before winning a close Senate primary in 1980 and riding the Ronald Reagan wave into office. Specter’s career since then was unorthodox for a Republican: He had close ties to organized labor, and as an ardent proponent of abortion rights was well-liked by feminist groups.

Since becoming a Democrat, Specter has moved beyond Democratic interest groups and reached out to grass-roots Democrats in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. Casey, whose family is something of Democratic royalty in the Keystone State, said Specter has made enormous progress on this front while making himself at home among Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“I think what he did from that day forward is really work to earn — and is still working — to earn the trust of Democrats. That meant a lot of extra work, a lot of extra travel, meeting people that he may have known a little bit but never really interacted with,” Casey said. “But I was especially impressed at what he did and continues to do at the grass-roots level, meeting people literally county by county.”

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