For Senate: Sestak win ends Specter's long Pa. political career

PHILADELPHIA -- Undone by anti-incumbent fervor, a party base that didn't trust its new convert and low turnout on a drizzly day, Arlen Specter, the longest serving U.S. senator in Pennsylvania history, saw his political career come to its apparent end Tuesday in a Democratic primary loss to U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.

In a brief concession speech, Mr. Specter thanked his family, his staff and "most of the media in the Western Hemisphere" who descended upon Philadelphia to witness the end of an era.

"It's been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania," he said. "And it's been a great privilege to be in the United States Senate, and I'll be working very, very hard for people of the commonwealth in the coming months. Thank you all."

Mr. Specter, 80, had served in the Senate as a Republican since 1981 but a year ago decided his prospects for a sixth term would be better in a primary race as a Democrat. His vote for the controversial stimulus package had caused the GOP to revolt against him and inspired Republican Pat Toomey -- a former congressman from Allentown who narrowly lost to Mr. Specter in the 2004 primary -- to get into the race.

Mr. Toomey handily won his primary race against Johnstown activist Peg Luksik and will face Mr. Sestak in the fall.

From his position on the Warren Commission pushing the single-bullet theory in the John F. Kennedy assassination to his grilling of professor Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings to his dramatic party switch last year, Mr. Specter's public life has never been dull. Mr. Specter's first political race was in 1965, a successful run for district attorney in Philadelphia when he defied the city's Democratic machine to run as a Republican, even though he was a registered Democrat. He stuck with the GOP for the next 44 years.

Mr. Specter aspired to higher office, but lost governor and Senate races before he grabbed a Senate seat in 1980. Mr. Specter earned a spot on the Appropriations Committee and, as his clout rose over the years, he continually brought federal money into every corner of the state.

"I think Arlen Specter has done more for the people of Pennsylvania than anyone in the commonwealth's history," said Gov. Ed Rendell, who worked for Mr. Specter in the Philadelphia DA's office decades ago.

"He didn't deserve to lose. I'm not saying Joe didn't deserve to win, but Arlen didn't deserve to lose. And when people deliver the way he has delivered -- he never asked us if we were Democrats or Republicans."

Mr. Rendell blamed the loss on the anti-incumbent mood throughout the country, which was on display elsewhere Tuesday night as Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., found herself in a tight primary battle of her own.

"He deserved better, but I think all of us that know Arlen understand what was out there and understand why people are angry, and you've got to move on," the governor said.

Mr. Specter said he told Mr. Sestak he would support him in the general election, and Mr. Rendell said he would work for Mr. Sestak -- though he still thought Mr. Specter would have been a better candidate and was disappointed at the loss.

As the returns showed a small but significant lead for Mr. Sestak turn into a sure outcome, the Specter party-goers in the Sheraton Center City hotel -- munching on prime rib and bacon-wrapped scallops -- wore a stunned look.

Then a round of applause and chants of "Arlen, Arlen" broke out as their candidate entered the ballroom with his wife, Joan, and son, Shanin, an attorney who has helped run his father's campaigns for years.

After his brief speech, Mr. Specter was besieged by still photographers and video cameras, yet did not utter another word in response to questions. He eased himself into a car next to his wife and was driven off into the night.

During his Senate career, Mr. Specter made his mark as a moderate and a deal-maker with the opposite party -- but in recent years he saw the number of northeastern, centrist Republicans shrink until, as he quipped to the Post-Gazette editorial board last year, "you could fit us all in a phone booth."

The phone booth's remaining trio, Mr. Specter and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, crossed over to vote for the stimulus package last year -- the final straw in the frequently dicey relationship between Mr. Specter and the GOP.

With polls showing Mr. Specter badly trailing Mr. Toomey in a Republican primary, and national Republicans calling him a traitor for his vote, Mr. Specter crossed the aisle for good in April 2009.

Mr. Specter was immediately embraced by President Barack Obama and Mr. Rendell. Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made trips to Pennsylvania to raise money for him, though the duo stayed away in recent weeks as Mr. Specter's electoral prospects sank.

Mr. Specter showed his gratitude by piling up a 95 percent voting record with the Democrats, a firm ally on every major issue during the Democrats' fling with a 60-40 filibuster-proof majority.

But there was one problem: Mr. Sestak.

The former Navy admiral had been courted by national Democrats to run for Senate before Mr. Specter flipped and refused to back down once Mr. Specter joined the team. With the two men espousing the same stance on nearly every issue, it came down to a personality contest and a referendum on Mr. Specter's decades of service.

Mr. Sestak, 58, called his opponent an opportunist who would do anything to save his skin. He alluded to Mr. Specter's age in ways that were less subtle as the campaign dragged on. And he told a compelling personal story of a 31-year Navy career that led him to top posts in the White House, the Pentagon and at sea; and of his 8-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with brain cancer and given little chance to live but has survived thanks to innovative treatments.

Mr. Specter responded by attacking Mr. Sestak's cloudy departure from the Navy, which some reports have said came because he was an overbearing commander. Mr. Specter also attacked his rival for paying his campaign staff paltry sums and for missing votes in the House.

For months, Mr. Sestak tirelessly campaigned across the state but remained known to few Pennsylvanians. Then -- relying on a campaign war chest mostly left over from his last House race -- he launched an onslaught of television ads in the final weeks.

In the end, this campaign became defined by Mr. Sestak's basic, brilliant attack ad against Mr. Specter that showed him alongside former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as well as basking in an eager endorsement from former President George W. Bush. The key line in the advertisement, which was unveiled a few weeks before the election and helped spark a Sestak surge in the polls, was Mr. Specter's, delivered twice: "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected."

It did not.

Daniel Malloy: or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC. First Published May 19, 2010 5:00 AM


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