Steele: Specter "flip[ped] the bird" to GOP leadership

In a characteristically unbridled moment, the RNC chair tells CNN the Pennsylvania senator's actions were "disrespectful... downright rude."

Published April 28, 2009 7:50PM (EDT)

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has never been afraid to express his opinions when being interviewed, even when those sentiments -- and how they're phrased -- might come back to bite him later. On Tuesday, Steele proved that despite some of the criticism he's taken, he hasn't changed. In an interview with CNN, the party chair went after Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter for his decision to switch parties, saving some of his harshest criticism for the way Specter handled the move. (Video, via ThinkProgress, is at the bottom of this post.)

"I know the Senatorial committee made it very clear that they were going to support Arlen Specter and endorse him. [National Republican Senatorial Committee chair] Sen. Cornyn went out on the line for this man. And for the senator to effectively flip the bird back to Sen. Cornyn and the Republican Senate leadership, the team that stood by him, who went to the bat for him in 2004 to save his hide, to me is not only disrespectful. It's just downright rude. I'm sure his mama didn't raise him this way," Steele said. CNN's Gloria Borger then asked Steele whether Specter had given him any advance notice about his decision, and the RNC chair responded:

No, not at all, which is another form of disrespect that I don't countenance. I mean, you know, at least give me a call or give the party leadership a call and let us know, 'This is what I'm thinking, this is where I'm going,' so that, you know, it can be repaired.

Now, you know, I'm not one to be caught flat-footed about these things. You know, you get on your toes, and you respond as quickly as you can. But, again, I think it shows a lack of respect for a party that he has pushed to the edge in terms of his votes and in terms of the arguments he's made in support of this administration. And I think that right now, he is where he belongs, and if the Democrats don't beat him in the primary, we'll take care of him from the general.

Steele later expanded on this theme -- that Specter would face a tough Democratic primary -- portraying what is, quite frankly, a very unlikely prospect as a certainty. "Now, let me get this straight: Arlen Specter, the former Republican, decides today, 'Oh, magically, now I'm a Democrat.' And every Democrat in the state is going to go, 'Oh, my gosh, thank you, hallelujah, our savior has come?'" Steele said.

"I don't think so... I seriously doubt that he's going to have a scot-free ride to the nomination on the Democratic side, no matter what kind of deal the trial lawyers and the Democratic Party have made... I love it. And we're going to have a strong Republican candidate on our side, and I love that even more. And if Senator Specter survives into the fall, get ready to go to the mat, baby, because we're coming after you and we're taking you out."

That, also, is debatable. Last month, a Quinnipiac poll showed Specter getting 31 percent of the vote in a general election match-up against a generic Democratic challenger, who polled just ahead of the incumbent at 33 percent, with 35 percent undecided. Considering that most Democrats indicated they'd vote for their party's candidate, and that Specter is more popular with Democrats and independents than with the GOP, it's likely he'll see his numbers way up against Republican challenger Pat Toomey.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Michael Steele