Arlen Specter: A Republican No More

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U.S. Senator Arlen Specter speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

When Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced on April 28 that he was switching to the Democratic Party after nearly four decades as an elected Republican, it marked a messy and shocking end to his tumultuous relationship with the GOP. Though Specter says his moderate views are no longer welcomed by the party, Republicans and pundits alike say the real motive for his move is pretty clear: Specter, who plans to run for a sixth term next year, faces long odds in winning the Pennsylvania's Republican nomination (especially considering the state's 200,000 constituents who decided to register as Democrats in 2008). As Specter himself explained, "I am not prepared to have my 29 years' record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate." (Read "Why Senator Specter Switched Parties — Really)

His decision to defect couldn't come at a worse time for the Grand Old Party. Should Al Franken win Minnesota's long-contested Senate seat in Minnesota, Democrats could have the 60-vote majority needed to overcome any Republican filibusters meant to stall President Barack Obama's legislative agenda. But while Specter was just one of three Republicans to support Obama's $789 billion economic-recovery legislation, he cautioned his newfound Democratic colleagues: "I will not be an automatic 60th vote." They don't call him a contrarian for nothing. (Read "GOP Senator Specter's Party Switch Gives Obama a 100-Day Gift")

Fast Facts:

• Born on February 12, 1930 in Wichita, Kansas to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Would later say his interest in politics began after witnessing his father's outrage over the failure of the U.S. government to grant bonuses to WWI veterans.

• Graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 — the same year he married Joan Lois Levy. The couple have two sons: Stephen and Shanin. His wife founded a successful pie-baking company in Philadelphia and currently serves as a member of the City Council.

• Served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1953, later earning his law degree at Yale.

• Was appointed Philadelphia's assistant district attorney in 1959 after spending his first three years in private practice. Left the district attorney's office in 1963 to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as an assistant counsel on the Warren Commission. Became a household name as the Commission's chief architect and a vocal defender of the group's theory that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

• Following the Warren Commission, Specter joined the Pennsylvania Department of Justice as a special assistant attorney general and, in 1965, he ran against his former boss to become the Philadelphia District Attorney (Though he was a registered Democrat, he ran on the Republican ticket when he failed to secure the Democratic nomination).

• After narrowly losing Philadelphia's mayoral election 1967 to a Pittsburgh millionaire, Specter continued to work as Philadelphia's District Attorney for eight years, overseeing 250,000 cases. In 1969, he hired two rival gang leaders as consultants to address the city's rising violence and the following year charged two white policemen with aggravated assault and battery in the shooting death of a black man — moves that won both derision and praise.

• Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980 after beating eight other candidates for the Republican nomination, despite a lack of support from Pennsylvania's governor or either senator. He once touted his legislative interests as the "big four" — kids, sex, drugs, and violence — and earned a reputation as a a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by bucking the party line: he's pro-choice, pro-stem cell research and against school prayer.

• As chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee, Specter spearheaded efforts to double funding for the National Institutes of Health and led the way in increasing education spending 146%.

• Nearly lost his 1992 Senate race after feminists mobilized against him for grilling Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination hearings (he called her testimony "flat-out perjury"). In 2004, his remark that a Supreme Court nominee who opposed abortion rights wouldn't pass Senate confirmation almost cost him the chance to run the hearings.

• Attempted to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1995, saying the country needed an alternative to increasingly religious conservatives. He withdrew within the year due to lack of funds.

• As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter once called witnesses like former adult film star Linda Lovelace, children's television show host Captain Kangaroo, and several jurors from the John Hinckley Jr. trial to illustrate his points on juvenile justice. Senator Paul Simon once publicly chided Specter for the gimmicks.

• Has survived a brain tumor, open-heart surgery and chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin's disease, the latest round of which ended in July 2008.

• Narrowly defeated Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican representative, in the 2004 Republican Senate primary. Toomey plans to run against Specter again in 2010, with some polls showing the challenger with a 20-point lead.

• During George W. Bush's two terms in office, Specter voted in favor of the Patriot Act (playing a critical role in re-authorizing the bill), retroactive telecom immunity, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Bush's controversial tax cuts, among other right-wing measures that have drawn the ire of moderate Republicans and Democrats alike.

Quotes By:

"I don't think Lee Harvey Oswald had this big a crowd trailing him."
— On the mob that surrounded him following his announcement that he was leaving the Republican Party to become a Democrat (Politico, April 28, 2009)

"I am staying a Republican because I think I have an important role, a more important role, to play there."
— Dismissing speculation in March 2009 that he was about to switch parties, adding, "I'm afraid we're becoming a one-party system" (The Hill, Mar. 17, 2009)

"He's smoking Dutch Cleanser."
— Criticizing then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez during hearings on the Bush administrations warrantless domestic-wiretapping program, saying Gonzalez's responses defied logic and plain English (Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2006)

Quotes About:

"Let's be honest — Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.
— Michael Steele, Republican Party chairman, saying he looks forward to Specter's defeat in 2010 (CNN, April 28, 2009)

"On the national level of the Republican Party, we haven't certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates: either you are with us or against us."
— Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of three Republicans, including Specter, to support Obama's economic-stimulus package, expressing sympathy and support for Specter's switch (New York Times, April 28, 2008)

I can only hope that Arlen will be as independent as a Democrat as he has been as a Republican.
— Rick Santorum, Specter's former junior senator, saying he was deeply disappointed in the decision (, April 28, 2009)

"You can find a lot of people who don't like Arlen Specter, but you can't find anyone who doesn't respect him."
— David Urban, Specter's former chief of staff (Time, April 14, 2006)

(See an illustrated calendar of Obama's first 100 days.)