Posted by: Nate Nelson | October 15, 2009

Specter’s Spectre

Did you see what I did there? Cute little play on words.

Seriously though, this week has brought bad news for embattled incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA). According to Rasmussen, primary challenger Joe Sestak is now trailing Specter by only four percentage points, moving this primary into the toss-up category. Rasmussen also finds that in a general election match-up, Specter is trailing likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey by five points, while Toomey and Sestak are locked in a statistical dead heat.

Both left and right have their own explanations for Specter’s unpopularity, and these explanations are hardly shocking. Liberals complain that Specter is too conservative while conservatives complain that he is too liberal. Given that Specter is taking just 65% of the Democratic vote right now while Toomey is taking 80% of the Republican vote, it does seem that Specter’s issues with the Democratic left could be very problematic for him in both the primary as well as the general election if, upon winning the primary, Pennsylvania Democrats don’t unite behind Specter’s candidacy. Still, while left and right are pointing to ideological problems, I think Specter is facing an even more serious problem.

According to another Rasmussen poll released at the end of August, 57% of Americans would like to replace the entire Congress. If we can infer from this a strong general disdain for incumbents, we can see why Specter — who has been serving in the Senate for almost three decades — might be having some problems with Pennsylvania voters. For some, Specter may exemplify the very thing that’s wrong with Washington politics. Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to be buying Specter’s party switch as authentic, and both seem to think that he did it solely as a means to hold onto his Senate seat. If Pennsylvania independents also share this perception then it could be a big problem for the Specter campaign. Democrats want a fresh face in the Senate (Joe Sestak) and so do Republicans (Pat Toomey). It might prove difficult for Specter to weather the perfect storm he’s facing.

What do I think? I think the left needs to relax a bit. I’m not necessarily saying anyone should vote for Specter over Sestak or vice versa, although I do have my preferences; I think both are good candidates and I think both will serve Pennsylvania pretty well in the Senate. But if Specter should win the primary, it would be high time for liberals to stop with the “he’s not really a Democrat” conventional wisdom. Although his voting record probably isn’t everything liberals might hope for, Specter has so far proven that he is more than willing to play ball with the Democratic leadership and the agenda they’ve set. He voted for the stimulus plan while still in the Republican caucus and he has come out strongly in favor of a “robust public option” in the health care debate.

If Specter continues to impress, it might be a mistake for the left to so readily dismiss him. If Specter and Sestak prove to match up pretty much evenly on core issues, would it really be wise to replace someone with Specter’s seniority with a freshman senator? In the Senate, seniority is power; Specter has seniority and thus he wields considerable power at times. Sestak will have no seniority and will likely be no more than one vote out of sixty (or less). Meanwhile, if Specter should win the primary, it would be devastating for Pennsylvania Democrats to just stay home in November. The fact that Toomey has energized 80% of the Republican base while Specter has only captured 65% of Democrats could spell disaster in the form of a Toomey victory if Democrats don’t unite behind the primary victor, whomever he may be.

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