U.S. Senator Arlen Specter is switching parties and running for re-election as a Democrat in 2010 after more than 40 years as a Republican, saying the GOP is not longer a good fit for his beliefs because the party has moved too far to the right.
"This is a painful decision," said Specter at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "I know that I'm disappointing a lot of my friends and colleagues...the disappointment runs in both directions."
Specter faced a tough reelection on the Republican ticket and admitted "my chances of winning are bleak." A poll out just this week puts him more than 20 percentage points behind conservative challenger, former Congressman Pat Toomey. Specter said President Obama has promised to campaign for him in the Democratic primary.
His party switch is a huge political move for the Obama administration because it puts Democrats within one seat of a 60-vote filibuster-resistant majority. That would certainly make it easier to push through the President's agenda.
President Obama called Specter Tuesday morning and told him, we are "thrilled to have you." The President got the news during a daily briefing. He was handed a note that said: “Specter is announcing he is changing parties.”
Senator Specter's formal statement reads, in part:
"I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.
Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.
I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary."
Secret talks before Specter's decision reached into the White House, involving both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, a longtime colleague in the Senate and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. The White House said no promises were made to get Specter to make the switch but that if Specter asks for campaign support, the President would be "happy to do it."
Specter, 79 and in his fifth term, is one of a handful of Republican moderates remaining in Congress in a party now dominated by conservatives. With Specter, Democrats would have 59 Senate seats. Democrat Al Franken is ahead in a marathon recount in Minnesota, and if he ultimately wins his race against Republican Norm Coleman, he would become the party's 60th vote. That is the number needed to overcome a filibuster.
“While it will still take a great deal of work to pass the President’s comprehensive and bold agenda, the Republican party will no longer be able to revert to kneejerk filibusters at every whim to block progress, and that is a very good thing for Americans," said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). "Arlen Specter, through the years, has been an effective, intelligent and moderate senator. We welcome him into the Democratic Party and our caucus in the Senate with open arms and can understand that his party, particularly in the last three months, has shown no room for moderates," said Schumer.
"I am deeply disappointed in Senator Arlen Specter's decision to leave the Republican Party, as he has benefited from the support of our Party for many years. It is apparent that he chose to act in his own self-interest and put his political ambitions first," said Rob Gleason, Chair of Pennsylvania's Republican Party.
Gleason said Specter should offer a refund to Republicans who helped fatten his war chest, which totaled $5.8 million at the end of 2008. "He should give them the option," said Gleason.
At least one conservative commentator, Rush Limbaugh, said he was not so devastated to hear of Specter's split from the Republicans.
"It's ultimately good," Limbaugh said, adding that Specter should take Sen. John McCain and his daughter Meghan with him.
"You're weeding out people who aren't really Republicans."
Specter said he'd wait about a week before deciding when to start caucusing with Democrats in the Senate and that he cannot make his party switch official until May, according to The Hill. "But I do intend to change it," he said.
Asked by a reporter what he had to say to his constituents, Specter replied with a smile, "I don't have to say anything to them. They said it to me."