Sen. Arlen Specter stunned both parties on Capitol Hill today when he announced he would switch his party allegiance to Democrat after 42 years as a Republican, including 28 as a senator from Pennsylvania.
Beyond the personal drama and implications for the Republican Party, which has endured major setbacks in the last two general elections, Specter's decision could potentially give Democrats the ability to break Republican filibusters in the Senate.
Specter called his decision to switch from Republican to Democrat "painful," and said he made the decision based on public and private polling in Pennsylvania that showed "the prospects for winning a Republican primary [in Pennsylvania] are bleak."
"As the Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," Specter said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Former Congressman Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican, officially entered the primary race against Specter just two weeks ago and was way ahead in polls.
"I'm not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary. This is a decision that has been reached gradually as I have traveled the state in the last several months. Specifically, I got my own poll results back last Friday and consulted with my campaign manager..." he added.
In a Quinnipiac poll last month, Specter trailed Rep. Pat Toomey, 27-41 percent, among registered Pennsylvania Republicans in a primary matchup for Specter's Senate seat. Among all Pennsylvania registered voters in that poll, Specter had a 29 percent favorability rating among Republicans, compared with 60 percent among Democrats and 41 percent among independents.
In a rather jovial mood at his press conference, Specter was asked about the votes he has cast that outraged liberals over the years -- especially his votes to confirm conservatives like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In response, the new Democrat noted that he has voted 10,000 times.
"I don't expect everybody to agree with all my votes. I don't agree with them all," he replied.
Asked if he expected to "butt heads" with fellow Democrats on anything he said: "It all depends if my fellow Democrats are wrong and stupid."
He said Democratic leaders, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, have approached him about backing his candidacy in the state's 2010 Senate elections.
Republican colleagues were downtrodden after learning the news. Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who is in charge of getting more Republicans elected to the Senate in 2010, called Specter's decision, "political self-preservation."
The effect of his switch was immediately felt on Capitol Hill. Even before a press conference announcing his switch, Specter popped in to an Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the federal response to the swine flu outbreak. This morning he would have been the ranking member on that committee. But when he showed up, just before 2 p.m., he sat on the Democratic side of the room.
Later, he'll vote on whether to confirm Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as HHS Secretary. Republican opposition to Sebelius has been growing, particularly with regard to her support of abortion rights, which Specter also supports.