Specter says he might pull a Lieberman

The Pennsylvania senator says he's remaining a Republican, for now, but he won't rule out running as an Independent.

Published March 18, 2009 9:55PM (EDT)

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., won't be deterred. Despite a recent poll that found 53 percent of Pennsylvania voters and 66 percent of the state's Republicans want someone else to be their senator come January 2011, Specter remains committed to running for reelection. In fact, he's so committed, he's not ruling out the possibility of following in Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's footsteps and campaigning as an Independent.

Tuesday, in an interview with The Hill, Specter said that while he won't run as a Democrat, running as an Independent is "always something that could be a possibility." The senator may need to drop or change his party affiliation because he faces a tough primary challenge from former congressman and current Club for Growth President Pat Toomey, who came close to toppling the incumbent in a 2004 primary.

Specter, never a conservative favorite, has lost favor with the state's GOP in part because of his vote in favor of the stimulus. Recently, FiveThirtyEight.com ranked his seat as the most likely to flip in 2010.

Though a run as an Independent would inevitably draw comparisons to Lieberman's 2006 campaign, Specter lacks one option his colleague had. Lieberman ran and won his reelection bid in Connecticut as an Independent only after he lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. Under Pennsylvania law, however, Specter will have to decide before the primary whether he will run as a Republican or not.

For the time being, Specter wants to remain in the GOP, in part to help it retain some measure of power in the Senate. “I think the United States very desperately needs a two-party system... And I’m afraid that we’re becoming a one-party system, with Republicans becoming just a regional party,” he told The Hill. "I think each of the 41 Republican senators, in a sense -- and I don’t want to overstate this -- is a national asset because if one was gone, you’d only have 40, the Democrats would have 60, and they would control all of the mechanisms of government.”

Specter's reelection prospects took an additional hit Wednesday when Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said he'll do anything he can to defeat Specter if the senator remains a Republican. According to Greg Sargent, the two men are long-time friends, and there had been some speculation that Rendell aided Specter's last reelection bid.

Rendell's commitment to battle Specter could be an attempt to convince him to run as a Democrat. Specter's been feeling pressure to move that way from other quarters as well; the head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has said the the labor organization would throw its weight behind Specter in 2010 if he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize. That vote -- and that help from the AFL-CIO -- could be key for the senator, who would anger the fiscally conservative wing of the GOP that Toomey appeals to if he does end up backing EFCA.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Democratic Party Joe Lieberman Republican Party