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From the grassroots up, calls for a competitive Dem primary threaten to boil over

From the grassroots up, calls for a competitive Dem primary threaten to boil over

The dissension among party rank-and-file and liberal activists began almost immediately: Why, people wondered last week, was the Democratic Party settling for a longtime Republican when it could surely do better? That sentiment has only spread in the time since Senator Arlen Specter defected to the Democrats last week.

Now, grassroots demands for a competitive Senate primary are growing louder, and they threaten to embroil Gov. Ed Rendell and the leadership in an intra-party dispute that could test Democrats’ ability to control their own in what has quickly become the most closely-watched political contest in the country.

“I feel that Democrats should have a real Democrat representing them in the United States Senate, not somebody who supported most of the Bush agenda,” said John Morgan, a progressive activist who runs the Pennsylvania Progressive blog, wrote a passionate argument for a primary and has been working with other party activists to ensure that Specter faces a serious challenger next spring.

Attempts by party leadership to clear the primary field for Specter, Morgan predicted, will fail.

“I’ve been burning up my BlackBerry for a few days, and my understanding is that it’s completely falling apart,” he said. “There’s been a lot of blowback on it from elected officials, party leaders, and a lot of rank-and-file.”

When Specter announced his decision last week, reports quickly emerged that Rendell had promised to clear the way for Specter to get the nomination. While no formal endorsement has been made yet, the state party, under Rendell’s control, has been abundantly clear that Specter has its backing. Since then, labor leaders have questioned whether they can back Specter if he doesn’t shift on key positions, activists have encouraged primary challengers, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) has taken advantage of the growing outrage and Democrats Joe Torsella and Bill Kortz have said they’re staying in the race.

In an interview, state Democratic Party chairman T.J. Rooney said that dissension within party ranks should be “expected and respected.”

“People need to have their say, they need to express their concerns, and they need to be listened to,” Rooney said.

But he was confident the party will eventually embrace Specter.

“Just as those men and women want to express their thoughts,” Rooney said, “I think Senator Specter should also be given the opportunity to be heard.”

Whether the opposition to Specter translates into a truly competitive primary remains to be seen. In his first week as a Democrat, Specter has certainly given liberals across the party cause for alarm. He voted against President Obama’s budget and a Democratic measure to make mortgage restructuring easier. He said he would not change his position on the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card-check,” and said he opposed a public option for health care.

Meanwhile, a grassroots infrastructure to hold Specter accountable to Democratic values—and perhaps eventually challenge him—has formed quickly. The Accountability Now PAC has been calling for a primary and laying the groundwork for helping to fund a challenger. At least two Facebook groups have been formed—”I support a real progressive against Arlen Specter” and “Keep Specter Honest.” And a Democratic activist has started Specter Watch, a blog that is closely monitoring the Senator’s every move.

“We’re talking about a state that President Obama won by 11 points,” said Ben Turner, who runs the blog. “This is not a state where you have to be timid if you’re a Democrat now. We know what the Republican base used to get out of [Specter]. They would get a year-and-a-half of votes from him before the primary. What is the Democratic Party going to get out of him?”

Specter’s campaign manager did not return messages seeking comment.

If the calls for a primary are to avoid fizzling out, it will likely depend on how organized labor comes down on the issue. While the state’s AFL-CIO initially greeted Specter’s defection warmly, union leaders have since increased pressure on him to support card-check. Specter met privately with labor leaders yesterday, and their support for him remains unclear—a situation not without irony consider labor’s consistent support for Specter when he was a Republican.

Whether party insiders higher up the chain rebel against Specter as a standard-bearer will also be a significant factor. Most have bit their tongues and echoed Rendell’s support for Specter, even if they quietly say later that they don’t agree. Some have already cleared the field for Specter, but the dissatisfaction over how things were done has been palpable. Increasingly, insiders predict a competitive primary of some kind, even while top party officials say the field will soon clear of any serious challengers.

“There’s a lot of Democrats that are angry that he’ll be the Democratic nominee, especially since he admitted it was such a political calculation,” one Democratic staffer said recently.

Bill Green, a political analyst in Pittsburgh, said that with Rendell and Obama behind Specter, mounting a primary challenge would be a losing proposition.

“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” he said. “Democrats have nominated liberals to run against Arlen Specter for 30 years, and they always lose. The vulnerability of Arlen Specter is on his right.”

May 6, 2009 at 8:50 am

--Dan Hirschhorn

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comments [10] | post a comment

  1. [...] From the grassroots up, calls for a competitive Dem PA primary threaten to boil over… [...]

  2. [...] UPDATE: More here. [...]

  3. George

    May 6th, 2009

    Grassroots movements are great…but wouldn’t it help if John Morgan were a Democrat? He has been very vocal about leaving the party.

    Check for yourself here:

    And here:

  4. Larry

    May 6th, 2009

    So, John Morgan left the Democratic party and now thinks he can engineer some kind of a movement? Tough to do if you can’t even vote in the primary. Toomey’s right wing supporters were in the wilderness for years, but they stuck it out and now control the Republican Party. Seems like Morgan is doing the exact opposite. Keep on blogging buddy…cause that’s about all you can do if you can’t even vote against Specter in the D primary.

  5. Lee

    May 6th, 2009

    This is a classic example of instant analysis being both foolish and wrong. A week ago, the pundits were proclaiming that the Dems, with Specter, had a filibuster proof Senate. We see now how erroneous that was. I suggest that it won’t take much longer to see that the other side of “the deal” is just as incorrect. Rendell is a lame duck and getting lamer every day. The first place his waning power will be evident is his political muscle. He simply cannot clear the field for Specter, even if he wants. Specter’s fate is in his own hands, not Rendell’s. If Specter truly did change parties to enhance his chances of winning the 2010 election, he’d better weigh his Senate votes very carefully from here on out. Those votes, not the words of Rendell or Obama, are what PA Dems will base their ballots upon. I’ll bet you Obama knows that very well.

  6. David Diano

    May 7th, 2009

    A Specter/Sestak primary will piss away the $10 million total these two have in the bank already and millions more.
    This is like two poker players going “all in” for the trophy, but the house gets to keep the pot.

    These two ego maniacs will go at each other because a loss for either ends their political careers. They will put every dollar into the Primary and have nothing left afterward against a well funded GOP if they can “clear” the GOP field themselves.

    These millions of Democratic dollars should be put to better use for some of the swing-able races on Nate Silver’s

  7. Lee

    May 7th, 2009

    David, you make a good point, but the stronger point may be the evils of the campaign financing system we now have. If we had public campaign financing, we could have a healthy primary contest without it depleting funds for the general election.

  8. David Diano

    May 7th, 2009

    While I like the idea of public financing, it has the following problem:
    If both sides have the same amount of money, the incumbent has the advantage. Also, money is easily raise for side groups to run parallel efforts.

    What I think is a better system would be to reduce the cost barrier to make it easier for challengers and the not-well financed.

    For example, reduce the postal rate to 10-cents for political mailings from the campaign so both sides can get their message out.
    Similarly, the public owns the airwaves. Have the broadcast rates for commercials (by the candidate, not PACs) at a very cheap rate.
    You could set some maximum minute limit for the discounted time to prevent abuse and also have some minimum amount of free time. The amounts would be calculated by some formula based upon population size, TV coverage, number of voters for office sought, etc.

  9. [...] So, after discovering the highly useful,  I find that Joe Torsella and Bob Kortz are in the race and not planning on leaving… at least not yet, despite rumors and rebuttals [...]

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