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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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