Should Specter have run as an independent?

He couldn't win as a Republican and he may not be able to win as a Democrat. But there was another option

By Steve Kornacki

Published May 11, 2010 5:12PM (EDT)

Senator Arlen Specter sits at a Senate Appropriations Committee emergency hearing on the Swine Influenza on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 28, 2009. Specter said on Tuesday he will switch parties, moving Democrats closer to a 60-vote Senate majority that would allow them to break Republican procedural roadblocks.   REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst      (UNITED STATES POLITICS)                  (© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Senator Arlen Specter sits at a Senate Appropriations Committee emergency hearing on the Swine Influenza on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 28, 2009. Specter said on Tuesday he will switch parties, moving Democrats closer to a 60-vote Senate majority that would allow them to break Republican procedural roadblocks. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES POLITICS) (© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

All of a sudden, Arlen Specter is on the brink of defeat. A week before Pennsylvania's Democratic primary, Specter now consistently trails his challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, in polls. More ominously for the incumbent, his own numbers seem stuck in the low 40s -- lethal territory for a longtime officeholder.

We can argue all we want about Specter's strategy -- and specifically his decision to attack Sestak's military record, a gambit that has emerged as a popular explanation for Specter's apparent collapse. But the real explanation might just be that Specter's bid to survive as a Democrat was doomed from the start.

Sure, Specter enjoyed robust leads over Sestak for much of the last year. But in all of that time, Specter has consistently failed to move his Democratic primary support past the 50 percent mark. In May '09, he led Sestak by a 50-21 percent margin.  In a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll out today, Sestak now leads 47 to 43 percent. So, basically, Specter's support has fallen off slightly in the last year, while Sestak's has more than doubled. At least half of Pennsylvania's Democratic voters, it seems, were always going to be resistant to the idea of voting for Specter. And now that they are focused on the campaign and know who his opponent is, the horse race numbers finally reflect this.

Specter's trump card, of course, was supposed to be his support from the White House and Pennsylvania's Democratic establishment, led by Gov. Ed Rendell. They would vouch for him, raise money for him, muscle potential foes out of the way, and mobilize a field army. That was the theory, at least.

But the value of all this establishment support is diminished -- significantly -- if the electorate simply doesn't want to vote for the establishment's candidate, as seems to be the case in Pennsylvania. Then, all it takes is one credible candidate to defy the establishment's pressure and jump in the race. By securing a one-on-one race against Specter, Sestak long ago put himself in position to corral the Anyone-but-Specter crowd, just as soon as the electorate actually began paying attention to the campaign. In this sense, the push to clear the field for Specter backfired: With multiple challengers, Specter would probably be in a better position to prevail next week.

Moreover, the White House has ended up undermining Specter in the race's home stretch. President Obama's Monday announcement that he's nominating Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court turned Specter's 2009 vote against Kagan's confirmation as solicitor general into a major campaign issue.

The explanation for that '09 vote is rather obvious: Specter was still a Republican at the time and, facing a likely primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey, was trying to curry favor with the GOP base. But he can’t say that now. Nor is there any other explanation that will wash with the Democratic electorate. The whole episode merely serves to remind Democrats of Specter's past GOP affiliation and the cynical nature of his party switch -- all at a time when Specter can least afford it (and just as Sestak is blanketing the airwaves with reminders of all the nice things Specter and George W. Bush were saying about each other just a few years ago).

This doesn't mean that Specter was wrong to leave the GOP last year. His conclusion that he wouldn't be able to beat Toomey in a primary rematch was correct. Remember, Toomey was crushing Specter by 21 points when Specter switched parties.  Never in their 2004 race (which Specter ended up winning by 2 points) did Toomey lead Specter in a poll. The GOP electorate had clearly given up on Specter, and there would be no winning them back in 2010.

But there was another option for Specter, one that might have spared him many of the problems now dogging him: run as an independent.

Doing so would have helped Specter in several important areas. First, it would have been treated -- by the media and by the public -- as a far less cynical move than switching parties. Specter's reputation for political independence was and is well-established. By abandoning the increasingly hard-right GOP for independent status, he would have been portrayed as a sympathetic figure -- a victim of the rabid GOP base's irrational purge.

But siding with the Democrats was a step too far, because Specter had been just as independent of Democratic dogma as Republican dogma. By joining the Democrats, he was forced to sync up his positions and his rhetoric with the party base. Every time he changed a position, it became news. The whole transformation reeked of calculation, not principle. Had he simply declared himself an independent, Specter wouldn't have needed to wiggle around nearly as much.

This would have boosted his standing with independent voters. A recent poll found Specter trailing Toomey in a potential general election contest by 3 points among independents. As the pollster noted, this isn't bad for a Democrat, given the current climate. But how many of those independents were turned off by the cynical nature of Specter's party switch? He'd be running much stronger among independents if he'd simply left the GOP. Plus, those independent voters aren't eligible to vote in next week's primaries, which are open only to registered Democrats and Republicans. By going the third-party route, then, Specter would have expanded the electorate to include a very fertile chunk of voters.

It's true that the math is tough for a successful independent campaign, particularly in Pennsylvania, where the two parties are strong. Independents account for barely 10 percent of the electorate, so Specter would have needed to draw significant support from both parties' voters. And it's also true that, historically, independent Senate bids have failed when both parties field credible nominees, as will be the case in Pennsylvania. In the modern era, third-party Senate candidates have only succeeded when one party rolls over for them -- think Joe Lieberman's alliance with Connecticut's Republicans and Bernie Sanders' partnership with Vermont's Democrats in 2006.

Then again, there really aren’t that many examples of serious third-party Senate candidacies in modern times. And there's the case of Charlie Crist, who -- at least for now -- is winning over big numbers of Democrats, lots of independents and a few Republicans in Florida. Crist, like Specter, was a goner in a Republican primary. He'd also probably lose in a Democratic primary. But by pursuing an independent campaign, he's given himself a chance -- his only chance -- at victory. 

It's worth wondering if a similar model could have worked for Specter. We know he was never going to win as a Republican this year. And it's starting to look like he can't win as a Democrat. It may be that his best option was the one he never seriously considered.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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2010 Elections Arlen Specter D-pa. Arlen Specter Vs. Joe Sestak