Sen. Arlen Specter is not the first Pennsylvanian to switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. Last year, there was a tidal wave of party-switching across the United States, but nowhere more so than here in the Philadelphia suburbs, which went from being the tipping point in Pennsylvania politics to being part of the solid Democratic northeast. I saw this happen in my own township, which, if you believe the political signs and clothing, went from being two thirds Republican in 2007 to two thirds Democratic in 2008. Visits by Obama and McCain probably helped that transition along, as there couldn’t have been a more stark contrast between the feel-good stump speech Obama delivered at the train station just one mile from here and the going-to-battle rhetoric dozens of handpicked supporters heard when McCain came by.
The suburbs are not where you go to battle. Suburbs are inherently conservative, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve moved so quickly and decisively into the Democratic camp. Democrats, these days, are promising to fix problems but keep things basically the same, while Republicans are talking culture war — not a tough choice, if you see it in that light.
In his statement announcing his change of party, Specter said that “the Republican Party has moved far to the right.” I don’t know if he saw the same problems with Republican positions that so many other Pennsylvania Republicans saw, or if he saw his supporters making the switch and felt that he had to go along. In the end, it does not matter. Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele said Specter was an opportunist who had left the Republicans for his own political survival, but what that really means is that the odds of any Republican winning a statewide race in Pennsylvania are not particularly attractive.
Specter’s move is politically significant because it makes it harder for Republican leaders in the Senate to organize a filibuster. Specter’s announcement came on the same day that the new Secretary of Health and Human Services was confirmed. The Senate voted 2-to-1 to confirm, but up until yesterday, some Republicans were still threatening a filibuster to block the confirmation vote. Now that Specter has left the Republican caucus, it will not be so easy for Republicans to organize or threaten a filibuster. The Republican strategy of resisting all progress in Congress will become more rhetorical than procedural in the weeks ahead.
In recent decades, Pennsylvania has been considered a battleground state, which either a Republican or a Democratic candidate could hope to carry in a competitive presidential race. But with the utter failure of McCain’s Pennsylvania-or-bust strategy last year, which saw him campaign more here than in any other state yet still lose by double digits, and now Specter’s move to the Democratic party, it probably time to take Pennsylvania out of the battleground category.