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Specter’s Loss Was All About Specter

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Tuesday's primary election results will only serve to reinforce the anti-incumbency narrative that has overlaid much of the media coverage of this election season thus far. According to the polls and the pundits, voters are angry at Washington and at political incumbents of all stripes, but especially at Democrats, who, we are told, will pay a heavy price at the polls this November.


The Democratic incumbent most responsible for this anger, and the one who needs to be most concerned about it, is the President of the United States who has alarmed the American people with his budget-busting spending policies, especially on healthcare. So goes the narrative.

And the result of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania plays into that storyline as the most glaring example of how much trouble the White House is in, since it backed the wrong horse in Pennsylvania; losing Arlen Specter is a harbinger of bad times ahead for the Obama and his party this fall. "Specter Defeat Signals a Wave Against Incumbents," screamed the New York Times on Wednesday morning.


The accepted analysis holds that if President Obama and the entire Democratic Party apparatus in Pennsylvania could not save a 30-year Senate incumbent like Arlen Specter it is clear proof that voters are ready to punish Obama and Democrats for a myriad of political sins this fall. The Specter loss is seen as especially ominous, coming as it did, in the wake of losses by a long list of Obama-backed candidates beginning with the gubernatorial losses in New Jersey and Virginia last November. And there was the loss of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat in January to Scott Brown.

But while I think the White House has much to worry about in the run-up to the November midterms, particularly in motivating its own base and jazzing the employment economy, the Specter loss doesn't tells us anything especially poignant about the general mood of the American electorate.

Arlen Specter is, and has been, a sui generis figure in American politics for the last 50 years. There has never been anyone like him. Remember his "Scottish Law" standard during the Clinton impeachment trial? Specter not only devised and defended the single-bullet-theory to explain the assassination of President Kennedy, but went on to a political career that in many ways took on the same aspects of improbability as his famous assassination theory. Think: the Jewish son of a junkyard owner from Russell, Kansas, moves to Philadelphia and becomes the first person ever to serve five terms in the Senate from Pennsylvania, and he does it as a Republican from Philadelphia, one of the most Democratic cities in the country. And with no accomplices. Specter irritated everybody.

Specter, of course, is a special case. His loss will always be tied to his controversial party switch from Republican to Democrat, just a year before the primary election. It has already been noted that the voters are in no mood for hypocrisy and opportunism in the politicians and that Specter may have become the poster child for that.


But my sense is that it is a lot less complicated: Arlen Specter has tormented Pennsylvania Democrats for three decades. On Tuesday, when he was depending on them, they could not forget all those close races he should have lost to them, which he won: The

50.5 percent in 1980 or the 49.1 percent against Lynn Yaekel in 1992, in what was supposed to be The Year of the Woman. Remember, primary election turnout is essentially about rallying the activist base of the party. As a result, despite all the high-priced, high-powered backing of President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Specter was really depending on people who had worked against him for a long time, and that kind of political muscle memory proved hard to override.


Dick Polman, my old colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer, summed up Specter's problems nicely on Sunday when he wrote: "Specter being Specter, his vulnerabilities are unique. He has logged 30 years in the Senate, 29 of them as a Republican - yet his fate now hinges on convincing millions of Pennsylvania Democrats (many of whom have consistently voted against him since 1980) that he's really one of them."

I thought he might be able to pull it off, because this was not Specter's first political identity crisis, and he has always managed to convince enough Pennsylvanians of both parties that he was the right person for the job.


Specter is the only senator in Pennsylvania history to be elected to five terms. Boies Penrose, the only one to have served four, did so before senators were directly elected by the people. So there was an argument to be made that Specter has been on borrowed time for a while, and at 80, the line of credit had run out.

The big lessons from Tuesday and how it applies to November may have nothing to do with incumbents and anger, but with good candidates and good campaigns that can convince discerning voters that candidates are worthy of the public trust, and incumbents will have as many advantages as disadvantages in that regard come November.


The Root's Editor-at-large, Terence Samuel, is the author of The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate. Follow him on Twitter here.

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