The Jewish Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate evaporated into thin air on Tuesday with Sen. Arlen Specter’s stunning announcement that he is switching parties because “the Republican Party has moved far to the right.”
That represents a huge boost for Senate Democrats, who were two votes short of a 60-vote “super majority” that would make it easier to end GOP filibusters, and for an Obama administration with an aggressive legislative agenda that has been slowed by Senate Republicans.
Specter, from Pennsylvania, was one of two Jewish Republicans in the last Senate. He became the lone Jew when Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman lost to Democrat Al Franken in November, although that election is still in dispute and Franken has not been seated.
Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 3-ranking member of the House, is now the only Jewish Republican in Congress.
A jubilant Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said “we welcome Arlen Specter to the ‘big tent’ Democratic Party. It seems like the Republican Party just wants to circle the wagons tighter, and is more interested in ideological purity than in expanding its base.”
But Republican Jewish Coalition director Matt Brooks, while admitting “we are disappointed Sen. Specter has chosen to leave the party instead of staying in and trying to effect change,” said efforts to cast the switch as a moderate-versus-conservative clash are inaccurate.
“It wasn’t some social issue litmus test that forced Arlen Specter out of the party, but his vote on the stimulus package.”
Specter, who will now run as a Democrat for a sixth term next year, was expected to face a strong challenge from the right in the GOP primary. Polls showed him running far behind former Rep. Pat Toomey, who ran a strong challenge in 2004 but was beaten back — in part because key Republican leaders, including President George W. Bush, rallied to Specter’s side.
Specter knew he would get no such help this time around.
“When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party,” Specter said in his announcement, in what could the political understatement of the year. “But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.”
Although there had been rumors Specter might eventually make the switch, its timing came as a stunning surprise to Democrats and Republicans alike.
University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald said the move represents the final chapter in a partisan “sorting out” process that’s been under way for more than a decade.
“It’s the delayed effect of the rebuilding of the Republican Party with the Christian conservatives as the base, and the sharp move to the right, particularly on the social issues,” he said. “Republicans who were more moderate on these issues, including Specter, were outliers; this is the end stage in that shift.”
Specter, Wald said, will be an “ideologically moderate Democrat.”
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- Kenneth Wald
- University of Florida
- Arlen Specter
- Norm Coleman
- Pat Toomey
- Al Franken
- George W. Bush
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- James Besser
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