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Specter defection shows GOP in death spiral

Former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., sits on the Democratic side of the dais during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the FY2009 war supplemental on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.

Former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., sits on the Democratic side of the dais during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the FY2009 war supplemental on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.

Now this is an interesting arc.

The Republican Party, which was created in 1854 when the once-powerful Whig Party splintered, is now on the verge of disintegration.

The Whigs imploded over the issue of slavery and states’ rights. The GOP’s threatened demise is also tied to a rift over the powers of the federal government.

Republicans were pushed closer to the edge of the abyss when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a political moderate, announced that he’ll seek re-election next year as a Democrat.

One of only three Republicans to vote to approve the economic stimulus plan Democrats pushed through Congress, Specter faced a strong challenge for the GOP nomination from former Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative.

Specter’s defection makes the Republican Party more of a regional force in American politics. The GOP now holds three of the 22 U.S. Senate seats from the 11 states of the Mid-Atlantic and New England region. By contrast, Democrats hold six of the 22 Senate seats from the 11 states of the old Confederacy – the GOP’s stronghold.

The Republican Party is “heading to having the smallest political tent in history for any political party,” said moderate Olympia Snowe, one of Maine’s two GOP senators.

“I’ve always been deeply concerned about the views of the Republican Party nationally in terms of their exclusionary policies and views towards moderate Republicans,” Snowe said.

GOP leaders downplayed Specter’s party switch.

“This is not a national story. This is a Pennsylvania story,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, pointing out that Specter trailed Toomey badly in a recent poll. But, of course, Specter’s departure is a big national story.

With Specter in their ranks, Democrats and independents who caucus with them now have 59 Senate seats, just one short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster and force a vote on any issue.

They should get another seat this summer if the Minnesota Supreme Court names one-time comedian Al Franken the winner of the state’s Senate race.

Franken holds a thin lead over Republican Norm Coleman, but the outcome of that election has been tied up in recounts and legal squabbling since November.

If Franken is confirmed the winner, pressure will increase on Snowe and Susan Collins – Maine’s other moderate Republican senator – to switch parties.

Snowe has said she’s staying put. But as the GOP’s right wing retreats deeper into its cave, the party’s remaining moderates will feel the piercing cold of ideological isolation. And when that happens, getting along to go along will become increasingly difficult.

Specter understands the futility of that position. He didn’t leave the Republican Party simply because he faced a tough re-nomination fight. He bolted to get off a sinking ship.

Just 31 percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released the day Specter switched parties said they approved of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing. Congressional Democrats fared much better. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they thought Democratic leaders in Congress were doing a good job.

And then there is this: Only 21 percent of people questioned in a recent Washington Post/ABC News polls identified themselves as Republican; 35 percent said they are Democrats; and 38 described themselves as independents. That’s a steep drop from the 32 percent who identified as Republicans in November.

The GOP is in a death spiral. Instead of trying to expand its ranks, it clings to its right-wing doctrine and panders to its base – and chases away Republican moderates like Arlen Specter.

DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who writes for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.

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