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ANALYSIS: Voting is now a high-stakes proposition for Specter

ANALYSIS: Voting is now a high-stakes proposition for Specter

Even before Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) became a likely Senate candidate, Arlen Specter was in the unenviable position of having his every word—and every floor vote—scrutinized by liberals skeptical of the party-switching Senator.

But now, with Sestak looming and repeatedly criticizing Specter as a faux Democrat, every vote, even procedural ones, could prove to be a veritable high-stakes bonanza that could make or break his reelection campaign. And if Specter, ever the political survivor, triangulates a bit more to satisfy he new party, don’t be surprised.

“He’ll be a better Democrat, he’ll be a more loyal democrat, even though he said he wouldn’t be,” said Tony Campisi, a vice-chair of the Delaware County Democratic Party and a Sestak supporter.

“I think he got off to a very rocky start as a Democrat—it was a very clumsy start,” Campisi added. “He’s certainly making an effort to change that, and the prospect of a primary means he’s going to have to reach out more and find out what activists and voters in the Democratic Party want from a United States Senator and start acting on that.”

Specter’s campaign manager declined to comment on how Sestak’s likely candidacy would effect the political landscape and the ramifications of any votes he casts. But with huge issues coming down the pipeline for Congress to consider, it’s clear that Specter faces a choice between sticking to some level of his own principle or assuaging the Democratic base he needs to get reelected. Just as he came out against The Employee Free Choice—known as card-check—to quell conservative anger over his vote for President Obama’s stimulus package before switching parties, he could soon find himself supporting the labor-backed legislation to tamp down dissatisfaction over his recent vote against Obama’s budget.

No one, even his staunchest foes, doubts that Specter is uniquely gifted when it comes to this kind of political and policy maneuvering. But if he doesn’t do it carefully, he could lose the significant credibility he had with Democratic voters even before he switched to their side.

From card-check and health care to energy and education, there is no shortage of potential ideological stumbling blocks Specter could face in the coming months. And any misstep could provide Sestak with the liberal outrage he would likely need to come close to matching Specter’s fundraising.

“He’s on the hot seat,” David Dunphy, a Democratic political consultant, said of Specter. “Every one of these votes coming up in the next year he’s in the hot seat, and every one has political implications.

“On the other hand,” Dunphy added, “Senator Specter’s not a dumb man. He’s a survivor.”

As an early test, card-check could prove particularly important. When he initially switched parties in late April, he signaled that he was still against the bill. But since then, he and people close to him have increasingly signaled that some sort of compromise legislation might be possible, and soon.

“If Specter goes against labor on this and they put their money into Sestak, then he’s got the money to run a race,” Dunphy said.

To Campisi, discussions like this illuminate why Specter is the wrong choice for Democrats in the first place.

“He is a Democrat out of necessity,” Campisi said. “Joe Sestak is a Democrat by choice. There’s a real difference there.”

June 4, 2009 at 11:37 am

--Dan Hirschhorn

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  1. David Diano

    Jun 4th, 2009

    “He is a Democrat out of necessity,” Campisi said. “Joe Sestak is a Democrat by choice. There’s a real difference there.”

    I’m less convinced that Sestak’s a true Democrat. Sestak was a registered independent until he ran in 2006 (Note: this is not uncommon for military to be registered as independent) When Sestak’s military career hit the roadblock, he quit (necessity?) to enter politics. Weldon was already the Rep incumbent, so Sestak wasn’t going to run against him in a primary. Dem was the only choice available to him (which doesn’t make it much of a choice).

    Sestak has a relatively conservative voting record (bottom 1/3 of Democrats) and voted to give Bush a blank check on Iraq (twice) and voted to fund Cheney’s office (after Cheney declared himself a 4th branch of government).

    Sestak has the earmarks of a closet conservative. Delaware County is far more liberal than most of the state (Rendell, Obama, Clinton, Gore, Kerry all won Delaware county with over 10 point margins), yet Sestak is close cousin to the Blue Dog Dems. If Sestak has to appeal to the conservative elements of the rest of the state, he will wear his military service as a conservative badge but will also likely vote more conservatively to match this expanded target.

    The bottom line is this:
    The unions WILL honor their promise to support him.
    Sestak will be up the creek without a paddle to move his battleship.

    A Sestak primary will WASTE millions of Democratic dollars that could be used for races where we need to replace Reps with Dems and cost additional millions in the 7th district to hold the seat.
    (But you know what, it might just be worth those millions to watch Sestak lose and end his political career NOW before he gets any higher.)

  2. Josh

    Jun 4th, 2009

    I agree with David. Sestak voted for funding without timetables in Iraq. I don’t think he’s a closet conservative so much as he has Boeing, the oil companies, the defense contractors, etc. pulling his strings. I think he’s getting greedy here. He’s gambling his House seat for a Senate seat against an Obama-backed incumbent.

  3. Lee

    Jun 4th, 2009

    “Arlen Specter won’t commit to Sonia Sotomayor” – Alex Isenstadt –

    If you don’t believe this isn’t a (failed) test of Specter’s commitment to the Democratic agenda and his loyalty to Obama, then we have a very different perception of commitment and loyalty. Go to to read the entire article.

  4. David Diano

    Jun 5th, 2009

    Good points about who’s pulling Sestak strings. A while back, I remember seeing a half dozen or more MAX contributions to Sestak from the owners and family members of some small helicopter company. I don’t know if he ever got them a government contract, but when the relatives come out with contributions, there’s probably an “expectation” of a return on their “investment”.

    Sestak has shown a little too much deference to the Executive branch powers over congressional powers. He’s shown ZERO appetite to hold congressional hearings and prosecute war crimes. The only thing I’ve heard him say is to get some NON-congressional group to have hearings to avoid “the politics”. This is not only idiotic but another abrogation of congressional authority on his part. Sestak’s effectively saying that Congress can’t do it’s job (and that Sestak isn’t interested in playing a role in a necessary and proper function of congress).

    Way to grasp at straws.

    Specter’s going to vote for her. He’s just trying to look “impartial” and responsible by saying he’ll make his judgment after the hearings. Nothing ominous about it.
    If there is a shoe or scandal to drop about Sotomayor that might get her to withdraw, Specter looks smart for not committing too early and then having to backtrack.

  5. Lee

    Jun 5th, 2009

    So, David, you endorse posturing by elected representatives? While what you say is literally true, how does that enhance Specter’s Democratic bona fides? How does hedging on Sotomayor demonstrate his commitment to the Democratic party/agenda (which was the premise of the original article)? Do you actually believe that the activists and voters who pay attention this far in advance of an election are going to consider Specter’s lack of support for Sotomayor a mere straw, particularly at a time when they are looking for signs of how Specter will act as a senator? Specter is playing this far too cute at a time, as the original story posits, he needs to showcase that he is a real Democrat.

  6. David Diano

    Jun 5th, 2009

    Specter’s whole shtick is that he’s a moderate/independent person who’s not going to pre-judge and is going to act responsibly.

    When Sotomayor was first announced (even before Sestak made any comments on it):

    Specter said, “I applaud the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Her confirmation would add needed diversity in two ways: the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court. While her record suggests excellent educational and professional qualifications, now it is up to the Senate to discharge its constitutional duty for a full and fair confirmation process.”

    Now, try going to Sestak and asking him NOW if he could say in advance that if he were Senator that he would commit to voting for Sotomayor BEFORE she came before the committee and there had been a thorough review of her record. I bet you get the same answer as Specter’s.

    Specter is going to vote for Sotomayor and the EFCA. Sestak is going to waste millions of dollars in a fight he can’t win.

  7. David Diano

    Jun 5th, 2009

    The likely players behind the scenes here whispering words of encouragement to Sestak are the media brokers (looking to take a thick slice of the campaign spending for TV slots) and the media pundits (looking for a race to talk about to help their ratings). Neither of these groups (and I suspect Sestak himself) have the interests of Pennsylvanians foremost in their minds.

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