Republicans are doing their best to downplay the significance of Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to switch parties, and they're hitting back especially hard against the implication that the GOP has simply become too conservative to accommodate moderates like Specter.
In a statement, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said:
Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not.
Let’s be honest -- Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left 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.
Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.
And in a statement of his own, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heads up the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "Senator Specter’s decision today represents the height of political self-preservation. While this presents a short-term disappointment, voters next year will have a clear choice to cast their ballots for a potentially unbridled Democrat super-majority versus the system of checks-and-balances that Americans deserve."
There are two ways to look at this message. It's true that this decision really does appear to be about Specter's political career, especially given the polls showing he'd take a drubbing in a Republican primary. At the same time, though -- contra Steele -- this was, at its core, about principles. The reason Specter found himself in this position is that a moderate seen as at all accommodating to Democrats just isn't acceptable to the GOP base these days. Party leaders like Steele and Cornyn want to spin their way out of that fact, but it's one they'll have to deal with in coming days.
On Twitter, the RNC struck a more cavalier pose, announcing, "Post your goodbye message to Arlen Specter on our you tube channel! The best 3 win a free flipcam!"