Sen. Arlen Specter has represented the Republican Party in the Senate longer than any other Pennsylvanian in history. His decision to abandon the GOP, while greeted with a collective "good riddance" by many conservatives, is the latest blow to a party battered by repeated losses in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
While conceding his disappointment, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, warned yesterday against drawing broad conclusions from the example of one politician trying to sidestep likely defeat in one state's primary.
"This is not a national story; this is a Pennsylvania story," he insisted in a news conference in which he ascribed the defection to the polling weaknesses of the once-crucial member of his caucus.
"We have a broad party, we have not done as well as we would like in the Northeast," he said, "[but] I do not accept that we're going to be a regional party and we're working very hard to compete throughout the country."
Mr. McConnell had a somewhat different message earlier this year as he reflected on successive election cycles of devastating GOP losses in the Senate and the House in a speech at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee.
"We're all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us," Mr. McConnell said then. "And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one. In politics, there's a name for a regional party: It's called a minority party."
As the party has become more conservative ideologically, its strength has been increasingly corralled in more conservative regions of the country, with significant recent losses at the congressional and state levels throughout the Northeast, Midwest and in the West Coast and Mountain states.
Elsie Hillman, a former GOP national committee member, used similar words in portraying Mr. Specter's decision as a warning to her party.
"While I am a Republican and will most likely be one for the rest of my life, I have seen our party move further to the right, leaving little room for those of us in the middle," she said in a statement. "In so doing, the Republican Party runs the risk of becoming a minority party. Yesterday we had three moderate Republicans in the U.S. Senate -- today we have only two."
In Pennsylvania, in a statistic cited repeatedly by Mr. Specter yesterday, roughly 200,000 Republicans have switched their registrations over the past two years.
"The state has changed substantially over the last couple of years," Sen. Bob Casey said yesterday. "We used to be, in the context of presidential races, a barely blue state -- 51-49 -- I think that has changed with President Obama's election ... but also the registration. The movement from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party."
Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College, combed the state's voter rolls and surveyed the group that left the GOP in recent years. He found that the former Republicans were dominated by more moderate voters.
Mr. Specter yesterday bemoaned the lack of moderate voices in his party, but suggested the movement to the ends of the ideological spectrum was a problem for both parties, pointing to the 2006 Democratic primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman only two years after he had been its vice-presidential nominee.
Mr. Specter said such polarization was occurring, "Because most of the people do not participate in the political process. If the electorate as a whole participated in the political process and the primary process, [Sen.] Joe Lieberman would win the [Democratic] primary in Connecticut hands down, and I would win Pennsylvania."
Post-Gazette staff writer Tim McNulty contributed. James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com .