Specter Switch Gives Conservatives Second Thoughts About ‘RINO’ Hunting

April 28, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) surrounded by reporters in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday (WDCpix) Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), surrounded by reporters in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday (WDCpix)

This wasn’t what conservatives were expecting to talk about today. The news that Sen. Arlen Specter, the senior Republican in the Senate, would switch to the Democratic Party, came out of the blue after weeks of denials that the senator would ever do such a thing.

Image by: Matt Mahurin Image by: Matt Mahurin

Inside the Club for Growth, the conservative PAC that until this month was led by former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) — Specter’s 2004 primary opponent who was gearing up for a 2010 rematch — staffers who were preparing to beat Specter read the news from The Washington Post and scrambled to write a statement for the press. Two hours after the news broke, the Club released a statement from new president Chris Chocola that called Specter “unprincipled” and his decision “cynical,” revealing himself as a “liberal devoted to more government spending.” In an interview on MSNBC, Toomey challenged Pennsylvanians to ask “if we can trust this man.”

The Specter switch — on a day that began with the GOP attacking the White House over a botched Air Force One flight and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ nomination for secretary of health and human services — has given Republicans and conservatives a gut-check moment. Many of them have argued that the Republican defeats of 2006 and 2008 were reactions to the Bush administration’s feckless policies, biased coverage from the mainstream media, and a duplicitous campaign by Barack Obama. Specter, one of just three Republicans (all senators) who supported the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was the only one up for reelection in 2010.

That made him a target of conservatives who believe the party’s comeback depends on a return to low-tax, low-spending fiscal conservatism. Republicans in Specter’s home state would not commit to supporting him over Toomey. Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, repeatedly turned down chances to promise national support for Specter in his upcoming primary.

Specter spent several months attempting to win over the base, experiencing slightly more success in Washington than in Pennsylvania by declaring his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and introducing (for the second time in two years) a flat tax reform bill. According to Chris Lilik, the editor of the conservative Pennsylvania Website GrassrootsPA.com and 2004 Toomey volunteer, Specter hadn’t been gaining ground with that strategy. Lilik pointed to Specter’s statements Tuesday about not wanting to “face the jury” of the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate as proof.

“There were so many issues he just wasn’t smart about,” said Lilik. “”It’s really unfair to blame conservatives for this. His problems with the base were all self-inflicted. He did this to himself.”

Self-reflection was hard to find from the Republican Party and from activists who had attacked Specter as an example of the GOP’s image problem — a man who prevented them from appealing to voters as the party of small government. Steele accused Specter of trying to “further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.” Eric Odom, the conservative web guru who launched TaxDayTeaParty.com — and who denied Steele’s request to speak at the Chicago anti-spending rally — responded to the news by tweeting “THANK GOD

Twitter was the best place to watch the conservative base, fired up by Tea Parties and already enraged at Specter, react to the news as validation. “.”

Among some other conservative activists, there was more regret, and more worry about how Specter’s switch would aid Obama and the Democrats. Gary Bauer, the longtime Republican evangelical activist who is now president of American Values, said Specter’s critics did not give him enough credit for his work in the Senate. “I don’t think that Clarence Thomas would be in the Supreme Court today if not for Arlen Specter,” said Bauer. “Having the support of what are derisively referred to as RINOS — Republicans in name only — can be important in the Senate.”

Bauer rejected the idea that the Republican brand would be strengthened now that Specter was no longer giving bipartisan cover to Democrats — and that Republicans were being shaped into the clear conservative choice that voters were missing in 2008. “I take a back seat to nobody in wanting the Republican Party to be Ronald Reagan’s party,” said Bauer. “But I would remind folks that Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush to be his running mate. Ronald Reagan understood that there was another element of the party that needed to be brought along. We gain nothing if we replace RINOS with Democrats.”

Bay Buchanan, the president of the American Cause, acknowledged that Specter had been a “huge problem” for conservatives who opposed pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but worried that he would become even worse as a Democrat.

“Did he give us a few things?” asked Buchanan. “Did he owe President Bush something because he flew into the fray in 2004 and saved him in the primary with Toomey? Were we able to call in a few chits? Absolutely. And now the Democrats will call in their chits. This is not good for Republicans. I’m not going to tell you that we’re cleansing the party and that this is good for Republicans.”

Democrats and union groups, whose pressure on the stimulus bill and card-check legislation were crucial to forcing Specter’s decision, spent Tuesday afternoon gloating about Specter’s announcement. Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, had dangled the promise of political support for Specter if he came around to support the Employee Free Choice Act. While Specter ruled out support of the bill today, Stern still claimed a kind of victory.

“It’s clear to us that the right-wing conservatives in control of the leadership of the Republican party in Pennsylvania left Senator Specter long ago,” said Stern in a statement. “We are pleased that he has decided to do the same.”