Arlen Specter, who was elected to the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, on the coattails of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, and has represented Pennsylvania in that body ever since, announced today that he is switching to the Democratic Party.
I see four major implications:
Specter's reelection campaign in 2010. The senator said that, as a result of his support of the economic stimulus legislation earlier this year, it's become obvious to him that he could not win next year's Republican primary. He now apparently becomes an instant front-runner for the Democratic nomination as his gateway to this state's general electorate, which has already sent him to the Senate five times. He's made it clear that he wants a sixth term, and this move seems to make that more likely.
Democratic hopes for a 60-vote Senate caucus. That is, of course, the magic number to cut off any filibusters that the minority Republicans make, to block elements of the Democratic legislative program. Specter now becomes the 59th Democrat. That might put more pressure on Norm Coleman, the Republican nominee for reelection to the Senate from Minnesota, not to concede to Democrat Al Franken, as the recount and challenge process regarding that election drags on. Franken would represent the 60th vote, so the Republicans will probably be more intent on at least delaying, if not preventing, the seating of Franken.
Committee chairmanship. Specter lost his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when the Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election. Now, he'll be back in the majority and, with his seniority, should be eligible to chair at least a major subcommittee, if not a full committee. Committee chairs in both houses of Congress have great influence on legislation within their areas of responsibility, and it's often said that "Mr. Chairman" and "Madam Chairwoman" are the most coveted titles on Capitol Hill.
Apparently, there's no word yet on how he'll be slotted into the Democratic hierarchy on committees. There tends to be controversy about whether a senator being courted by the other party is offered a chairmanship as part of a deal to get him to cross over.
Whither the Elephant? Is the Republican Party being reduced to a right-wing hard core, to paraphrase Specter's characterization of that party here in Pennsylvania? There is a debate brewing about the party's future, and the best way for it to revive its political fortunes. Some would say that offering a clear ideological alternative to President Obama and his party is the best way to lead the G.O.P. back to power. Others (and I lean toward this latter approach) would have the party veer more toward Specter's moderate stance, and away from the conservative populism of the likes of Sarah Palin. We'll see.