With Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democrats, the Republican Party is increasingly at risk of being viewed as a mostly Southern and solidly conservative party, an identity that might take years to overcome.
Specter’s move, which rocked Congress and the political world Tuesday, is the latest blow to Republicans, especially in the Northeast, once a GOP stronghold. The region’s Republicans now have been reduced to a scant presence in the House and a dwindling influence in the Senate.
But It makes it easier for Democrats, fairly or not, to paint the party as ideologically rigid and alien to large swaths of the country.
Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the Senate’s few remaining moderate Republicans, called Specter’s decision another sign that her party must move toward the center.
“Ultimately, we’re heading to having the smallest political tent in history,” Snowe said. “If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle.”
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was defiant.
“I do not accept that we are going to be a regional party,” he said. “We’re working very hard to compete throughout the country.”
Specter’s departure follows recent Republican losses in once-reliable states. While Barack Obama was cruising to the White House last fall, Republicans were losing long-held Senate seats in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia.
A moderate Republican lost his seat in Oregon, and the same seems likely to happen when Minnesota’s long recount is settled.
In the House, Republicans have suffered deep losses in the last two elections, especially in the Northeast. Last week, Democrat Scott Murphy won a special election in a heavily Republican congressional district in upstate New York. Murphy will be sworn in Wednesday, giving Democrats’ 256 House seats to 178 for Republicans with one vacancy.
The congressional Republicans’ base is shrinking, leaving them with strongholds only in the South and parts of the mountain West.
With the departure of each centrist, including Pennsylvania’s Specter, the party also appears more firmly right-of-center. Polls show most Americans nearer the political center, and Democratic leaders were happy Tuesday to promote the GOP’s image as narrow-minded.
“This is now officially a Republican Party where moderates need not apply,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Specter made similar remarks. “The Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right,” he said, adding to the trend with his switch.
Specter accused party leaders of abandoning moderate Republicans in tough races, saying, “there ought to be an uprising.”
In the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, the nation’s political realignment favored the GOP. Voters in many of the 11 former Confederate states ousted Democrats by the dozens, no longer accepting the old odd-bedfellows alliance of Southern conservatives and more dominant Northern liberals.
With the Northeast still home to many “Rockefeller Republicans” — centrists in the mold of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — the realignment pinched Democrats hard.
In recent years, however, the tide has reversed. Moderate-to-liberal voters in the Northeast and Pacific West felt increasingly at odds with the national Republican Party, and they began electing more Democrats to local and federal posts. Obama won surprising victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, though it’s far from clear that Democrats can hold those states.
The result is a shrinking and increasingly right-leaning GOP, throughout the nation and in Congress. There, moderate Republicans are almost an endangered species. While lonely, they may play pivotal roles in brokering legislative deals, especially in the Senate.
Snowe and her Republican colleague from Maine, Susan M. Collins, now are the Senate’s most prominent GOP moderates.
Collins said she was “very, very disappointed and surprised” by Specter’s defection. “It’s something I would never do,” she said, but she called on her party to be more inclusive.
“The Republican Party has been most successful when it has adopted the big tent approach that was favored by Ronald Reagan, by Gerald Ford” and others, Collins said.
Obama hailed Specter’s switch, but its blessing may prove mixed. The president vowed a more bipartisan era in Washington, and the loss of another GOP centrist will make Congress more partisan than before.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, faced an uphill battle in next year’s Pennsylvania Senate race even before Specter made the switch. In that sense, they probably have lost little. Besides, only 15 years ago some pundits predicted permanent minority status for Democrats, following their huge losses in the 1994 elections.
Political fortunes can change rapidly, and unexpectedly. But for now, Republicans hold distinct minority status in the House and Senate, where Democrats and independents hold 59 seats to 40 for the GOP. They confront a popular Democratic president, and they face numerous ill-timed retirements in next year’s Senate races.
Tuesday was another bad day in a political season that some Republicans must feel cannot possibly get worse.
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.