The center was a bullseye in 2010 for party-switching Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Voters turn away from high-profile party switcher

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Centrism and just plain survival made Arlen Specter part of the nation’s political fabric for nearly half a century, his cancer-fighting, party-switching story as much about evading death as writing laws.

But the very adaptability that helped Specter, 80, endure turned politically fatal Tuesday, when the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat lost his party’s Pennsylvania primary. His defeat raised a painful truth: He could not have won a sixth Senate term as a member of either party given the anti-incumbent mood of 2010.

At the polls Tuesday, some Democrats said they’d lost patience with the 30-year Senate veteran nicknamed by his opponents “Specter the Defector.”

“He must think we’re idiots,” said Tom Cragin, a college professor who cast his vote for Rep. Joe Sestak, the retired Navy admiral who on Tuesday bested Specter in the Democratic primary.

Some took a more pragmatic approach.

“He changed parties to save his hide,” said Ira Robbins, 61, a Republican who said he planned on voting for Specter in November. “But that’s what politics is. It’s a dirty game.”

Specter has acknowledged that his party switch last year was about his own political survival in an increasingly polarized state Republican Party. Specter cast one of only three GOP votes for Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package — infuriating conservatives and perhaps sealing his fate as a Republican.

For that and other reasons, Specter said, he could not survive a challenge by conservative favorite Pat Toomey, who had come within 17,000 votes out of 1 million cast of ousting Specter in the 2004 GOP primary.

Specter explained his switch this way: His fierce brand of centrism and independence and his advocacy for medical research would not change with his party affiliation. His party-switch briefly gave Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

After it was plain he had lost Tuesday night, Specter faced his supporters, thanked President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders for their help and said, “It’s been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania, and it’s been a great privilege to be in the United States Senate.”

For decades before the political center morphed into a bull’s-eye for Specter, it had been a haven that allowed “Snarlin’ Arlen” to stand out amid some of the nation’s most wrenching debates.

He was a pioneering staff attorney on the Warren Commission in 1964, when he helped develop the “single-bullet theory” to bolster the finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of President John F. Kennedy. He sent six Teamsters union officials to prison for corruption as an assistant prosecutor, then was twice elected Philadelphia district attorney.

Swept into the Senate by the Reagan landslide of 1980, Specter never lost his prosecutorial style. He used it to raise his profile during oversight hearings and Supreme Court confirmation fights.

Specter opposed Robert Bork in 1987, saying the former federal appeals judge was too ideological. Four years later, Specter was key to confirming Clarence Thomas to the high court. He gained notoriety by questioning Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Thomas and declaring afterward that “her credibility has been demolished.” He barely won re-election in 1992, “The Year of the Woman.”

Specter made no secret of siding with Democrats on such issues as abortion and stem cell research. He bragged he voted 400 times against the wishes of GOP presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was plenty good at irritating Democrats, too, leading opposition to President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated health care overhaul in the early 1990s.

Briefly, Specter explored a presidential run — as a Republican — in 1996.

But his place was at the very center of the Senate, in a spot that won him both power and powerful enemies. He voted with Democrats on a range of issues, against the 1999 GOP tax cut and for raising the minimum wage.

Underscoring his instinct for middle ground, he voted in 1999 to acquit Clinton in his impeachment trial after citing the Scottish practice of allowing a verdict of “not proved.” He said he didn’t necessarily believe Clinton was innocent.

Specter’s relationship with President George W. Bush was especially unpredictable. He increasingly opposed Bush administration positions, such as a cap on medical malpractice suits and some parts of the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

By 2005, Specter’s independent streak was on full, fierce display. As the presumed next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he warned the administration not to nominate judges who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Conservative groups howled. His chairmanship threatened, Specter quickly announced he would respect the president’s constitutional authority to nominate people to the bench. He also promised not to apply the litmus test of the abortion issue to nominees.

He then had to earn back the support of the Judiciary Committee Republicans — which he did — and took the chairman’s gavel. As chairman, Specter presided over the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

But bitterness crept into Specter’s public statements.

“In the United States Senate, it’s heresy, I mean rank heresy, to say you … ought to recognize your independence and vote your conscience,” he said in a 2005 speech.

Specter soon found himself facing off against the Bush White House, where politics and the most personal matters intersected.

A brain cancer survivor, Specter was diagnosed in 2005 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma just as Congress and the administration were locked in battle over Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Specter had authored a bill to clear the way for more public funding of the research, which could provide cures for many diseases, including some cancers. Bush had promised to veto any such legislation because the research also destroyed fertilized eggs.

The mere debate made Specter “mad as hell,” he said at the time. So, undergoing chemotherapy, he appeared on television and at White House meetings as often as possible, his newly bald head and runny nose a powerful symbol, he reasoned, for both his bill and for the forbearance of cancer sufferers.

The strategy never changed Bush’s mind. But Specter never missed a session that year and even kept up his squash games. In 2006, he became Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator. Two years later, Specter suffered a recurrence and published a book, “Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate.”

Under chemotherapy, the Ivy League-educated workhorse was candid about his survival strategy.

“When I’m totally engaged, I’m fine,” Specter said. “When I’m not, it’s tough.”

Kellman reported from Washington.

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