Arlen Specter has a long year ahead of him. The Pennsylvania senator switched parties, earlier this year, in order to have a shot at reelection. Longtime rival former Rep. Pat Toomey had entered the Republican senatorial primary, and the then-moderate Republican Specter saw the writing on the walls and walked out, declaring, “I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”
When he became a Democrat, the immediate assumption was that Specter was a lock for a general election victory. The conventional wisdom for decades on him was that he had mastered the art of sticking to Pennsylvania’s political center, which meant his weak point was in holding on to his party’s nomination. Toomey might be invincible on primary day (he even managing to fend off the national GOP’s efforts to find a more moderate candidate), but come November, Specter and the people of Pennsylvania would rekindle their love affair. The polls right after the party switch seemed to bear this out: Specter led Toomey by 20 points in a Quinnipiac general election poll.
Well, so much for that. A new poll out from Quinnipiac shows Toomey ahead of the incumbent, with 43 percent of respondents saying they'd vote for him compared to 42 percent who broke for Specter.
Ironically, Specter himself may not be responsible for his slide -- though his party switch might play a role. As a Democrat, he's now aligned with President Obama, and it may very well be Obama who's dragging him as far down as he's gone. The percent of Pennsylvanians who approve of the president’s performance has sunk from 56 in July to 49 today; on the economy, 46 percent approve of his performance, and on healthcare, 49. Anything below 50 percent is generally considered a big red flag.
The added pressure of a primary challenge on Specter's left can't be helping, either. Specter currently has a significant but probably shaky lead over Rep. Joe Sestak, with 44 percent to the challenger’s 25. It’s rarely a good sign for an incumbent to have so many voters still undecided. Sestak is also dragging Specter to the left; despite the promise he made when he became a Democrat to follow his own conscience, Specter has pretty much hewed to the Democratic line. As the political environment sours somewhat for Democrats nationwide, it probably hasn’t helped Specter that he’s moved a bit unglued from his traditional position.
Still, the election is far from over -- it's barely even begun. Though it’s not at all clear that he’ll be able to fend off Sestak, Specter has certain advantages, like the support of the president and the national Democratic apparatus. Should he win the nomination, his strategy for dealing with Toomey is obvious. The former congressman and head of the conservative Club for Growth remains something of a cipher to Pennsylvania voters, who appear to be giving him the lead right now out of disdain for Specter. Expect a well-funded and thorough campaign from the Democrat, seeking to convince the general electorate that his challenger is a right-wing wackjob. Anticipating this, Toomey has already begun to edge toward the center, but in a state that’s become increasingly Democratic in recent years, it’ll be hard to get off the hook.