WASHINGTON - Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch parties and run for reelection in November 2010 as a Democrat, he announced today, a decision that could have wide-ranging consequences for the Senate and President Obama's agenda.
Specter told reporters that he received a "bleak" poll Friday from his advisers that showed virtually no chance of him winning in the GOP primary next spring against Pat Toomey, a former Republican House member who recently led the conservative Club for Growth.
He said that the loss of several hundred thousand GOP voters who left the party in 2008 to vote in the Democratic presidential primary left the Pennsylvania Republican Party too conservative to support a moderate such as him. "I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican Party," Specter said.
After more than 28 years in the Senate, Specter acknowledged he was "not prepared to have that record" obliterated by the conservative primary electorate. He reached the decision over the weekend in consultation with his family and top aides, many of whom are staying with him despite his party switch.
He said informed Republican and Democratic Senate leaders about dinnertime last night.
The move brings Democrats to 59 seats in the Senate, just one shy of the 60 they need to exert filibuster-proof control over the chamber. In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken holds a 312-vote lead over former senator Norm Coleman (R), but Coleman has appealed the result to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are expected to begin in June.
Nonetheless, Specter remains an independent voice on many issues, opposing a union organizing bill that is key to many labor groups and rejecting Obama's choice to run a key legal advisory section of the Justice Department. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he said.
Specter's announcement, coming on the eve of Obama's 100th day in office, sent shockwaves through political circles.
Obama was informed of the decision at 10:30 a.m. today during his daily economic briefing. Minutes later he spoke to Specter by phone, and Specter said he received the president's full blessing to run in the Democratic primary largely uncontested next April. "He said he would support me, come to Pennsylvania to campaign for me," Specter said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Specter told him last night that he was likely to make the shift, then called the Democratic leader this morning to confirm that his decision was final. Reid credited Vice President Biden for playing an important behind-the-scenes role in softening Specter's resistance. Biden and Specter are old friends and Senate colleagues, and Biden successfully courted Specter over a period of weeks to support the stimulus bill.