Pennsylvania Demos Not Embracing Specter

A little more than two weeks after he switched parties, newly-minted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter is finding that life is not the comfort zone he perhaps thought it might be in his newfound political home.  For all the statements of official White House support for Specter as he seeks re-election next year — and the efforts of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to strong-arm opponents out of the Democratic primary — signs are strong that the 79-year-old Specter will still have to face the two Democratic candidates who were seeking the Senate nomination when he was still a Republican.

Moreover, although Rep. Joe Sestak is not there yet, all signals from the two-term liberal congressman and retired U.S. Navy admiral are that he will take on Specter in the Democratic primary next May.

Meanwhile, to the surprise of quite a few, conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey appears to have smooth sailing on the Republican side.  Five years after he drew 49.2% of the vote against Specter, Toomey is now getting endorsements from elected officials and party leaders by the day.  Last week, he dodged a potentially deadly bullet when former two-term Gov. and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced he would not run for the Senate.  Polls had shown moderate GOPer Ridge handily winning his party’s nod and running neck-and-neck with Specter among all voters.  

Rendell Getting Out, Sestak Getting In?

Discussing the behind-the-scenes work of two-term Gov. Rendell to get the two announced Democratic Senate hopefuls to defer to Specter, Jim Baumbach was dismissive.

“Rendell can’t do what the White House obviously wants him to do,” Philadelphia “superlawyer” Baumbach told me without hesitation, “He’s got to leave the governorship next year, so I’d say he’s got a case of ‘lame-duck-it is.’  He won’t be able to grease the primary for Specter.”

(Baumbach knows what he is talking about when it comes to Pennsylvania politics.  He managed the winning campaign for governor of Democrat Bob Casey in 1986 — Casey’s first gubernatorial win after three defeats for the statehouse.  A top adviser to the late Frank Rizzo when he was mayor of Philadelphia and a Democrat, Baumbach helped orchestrate Rizzo’s dramatic “last hurrah” in winning the Republican nomination for mayor shortly before his death in 1991.)

Baumbach also pointed out that labor unions in his state “have still not forgiven Arlen for changing his position on EFCA [the Employee Free Choice Act, which contains Big Labor’s much-sought-after “card check” to gut the secret ballot in union elections].”  He noted that unions are already running TV spots slamming the senator for going from pro-EFCA to anti-EFCA.  

This is not the behavior, Baumbach observed, “of someone who’s going to forgive and embrace Arlen Specter.”

Big Labor’s broadsides and Gov. Rendell’s diminished clout could well be the chief reasons that former National Constitution Center head Joseph Torsella and State Rep. Josh Shapiro steadfastly remain in the primary they entered before Specter opted to switch and fight.

The “$64,000 question” in Pennsylvania politics these days is “What will Joe do?”  In ’06, Joe Sestak was one of the Democratic Party’s stars.  In ousting Republican Rep. Curt Weldon from the Delaware County district he had held for twenty years, Sestak became the highest-rank former naval officer ever elected to the House — and, along with Virginia’s Sen. Jim Webb, one of the most-media-watched anti-war veterans in Congress.

Re-elected handily last year, Sestak has made no secret of his desire to run for the Senate.  The latest word from his office is that he has not made up his mind, that his decision on whether or not to run will be based on Specter’s actions and votes as a Democrat.

That is what leads many to believe he will run.  Specter has changed on EFCA and won’t change back—not now, anyway.  He voted against the Obama budget and to keep the environmentalists’ “cap and trade” legislation out of the budget.  Just recently, Specter said he sided with Republican Norm Coleman in the disputed, five-months-old Minnesota Senate race that seems likely to end with Democrat Al Franken seated and the Democratic Party thus having its 60 votes in the Senate needed to cut off filibusters.   

Pat Toomey has not yet wrapped up the Senate nomination yet.  Rumors still abound that one of the three Republican candidates for governor will change to a Senate race before long.  But right now, it is safe to say that in their respective parties, Toomey is in better shape than Specter.