27,000 Reasons Arlen Specter Became a Democrat

It's pretty obvious to me why Arlen Specter left the Republican Party. He didn't stand a chance in a Republican primary against former ...
by | April 30, 2009

Specter It's pretty obvious to me why Arlen Specter left the Republican Party. He didn't stand a chance in a Republican primary against former congressman Pat Toomey.

The tougher question is why Specter became a Democrat. Specter is still out of step with the Democrats on lots of issues, including the Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor's top priority. Despite the support he's getting from President Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, I wouldn't be shocked to see him face the same fate as Michael Forbes.

Forbes, a congressman from New York, switched to the Democratic Party in 1999. Democratic voters in his district rewarded his move by nominating a little-known librarian instead of him the next time he was up for reelection.

Specter's big strength is that most Pennsylvania residents like the job he's doing. His big weakness is that his centrist views make it difficult for him to win a primary (especially as a Republican, but also as a Democrat). So why didn't he just skip the primaries and run as an independent in the general election?

As usual, the answer appears to be state election law. Here's what Chris Cillizza reported yesterday:

The bar for Specter to run as an independent was also extremely high due to the rules governing such a third party candidacy.

What Cillizza is likely referring to is the large number of signatures that an independent must gather to get on the ballot. In Pennsylvania, the standard is 2% of the number of votes that the top vote-getter received in the previous statewide election, one of the more daunting signature requirements in the country. The 2009 statewide judicial elections will determine exactly how many signatures an independent running for Senate in 2010 will need, but Ballot Access guru Richard Winger estimated based on previous elections it would be around 27,000.

That might not sounds like a lot in a state where close to 6 million people voted in November. But, gathering signatures is always a difficult, expensive process. Candidates need far more than the minimum because invariably some signatures are invalid.

In Pennsylvania especially, it's a process fraught with risk. The major parties have a history of forcing third-party candidates off the ballot because of signature questions. Democrats succeeded in getting Ralph Nader thrown off the ballot in the state in 2004 and a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate thrown off in 2006.

Reports from a few weeks ago indicated that Specter was mulling becoming an independent. There are plenty of reasons he may have decided against that course of action. Major party support is valuable for lots of reasons, from fundraising to volunteer support to maintaining committee assignments in Congress. But, it's a pretty safe bet that Pennsylvania's signature requirements were part of the reason Specter became a Democrat instead of an independent.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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