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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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