After US Senator Arlen Specter came up short in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania Tuesday, many attributed the outcome to anti-incumbent sentiment. But if anything, Specter’s loss had less to do with blind rage against incumbents than with the unwarranted faith that some longtime officeholders, includi ng him, have in their own indispensability.
Upon bolting the Republican Party last year, Specter argued that his relatively moderate views were out of sync with an increasingly conservative GOP. That was true, but Specter’s political calculation was still naked: He was likely to lose in this year’s Republican primary, so he tried his luck as a Democrat. By Washington standards, his party switch was fruitful. He won at least the nominal support of Democratic heavyweights such as President Obama. Meanwhile, Specter’s new party gained a suddenly reliable Democratic vote and, however temporarily, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Less obvious were the benefits for Pennsylvania Democrats, who had been in the habit of voting against Specter for a quarter of a century — and who had another credible Senate candidate in Representative Joe Sestak, a respected former admiral.
So far in 2010, some moderate incumbents have been threatened by activist extremes of their own party; consider Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who was forced into a runoff against a more liberal challenger in her primary Tuesday. There’s also Utah’s Robert Bennett, a conservative Republican who lost his seat after being outflanked on his right. But Specter’s loss represents a different phenomenon: The incumbent simply couldn’t conceive of his own departure from Congress. Voters obviously could.