Less than a week into his tenure as a Democrat and Sen. Arlen Specter is already stepping sharply on the toes of party elders. Key Democratic figures warned on Monday that their newly minted colleague, despite having the backing of the White House, could face a tough primary challenge should he continue to oppose key tenets of the party's agenda.
"I'm pleased that he saw the light and decided he would be a better fit for the Democratic Party and I think you have to allow for his political views to evolve," said former DNC chairman Howard Dean in an interview with the Huffington Post. "But he won't win the Democratic primary by taking the position that you should not have [the Employee Free Choice Act] or a public option for health insurance... If he takes these kinds of views, of course there is going to be a Democratic primary."
In a separate interview with the Huffington Post, Democratic strategist James Carville was equally sour on Specter's recent party switch, calling the defection a potential "major event in terms of how the Senate conducts its business," but "a relatively minor event in political history."
"[Specter] was the least reliable Republican. So he will just switch to become the least reliable Democrat," said the longtime Clinton confidant and author of the upcoming book, "40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation." "I wouldn't try to make much more out of it than the political survivor comes up with one more act in a long running play of political survival... The one thing I will give him is I will give him some points for candor for being so upfront about [his switch]."
"I'm not sure this is going to have a great ending," added Carville, who has worked extensively in Pennsylvania politics. "He could get primaried, you know... If [Rep. Joe] Sestak runs, [Specter] will have to fight."
The remarks come a day after Specter, appearing on Meet the Press, insisted that he had not pledged to be a "loyal Democrat" as a pre-requisite for switching party affiliations. He also restated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, which he came out against while still a Republican, and said he would not support a public option for health care insurance as part of a reform package.
Specter's position on the former issue is shaping up to be the linchpin to whether the labor community would support him in a Democratic primary. And on Monday, a major official with the AFL-CIO warned that if the Senator didn't change his view on the legislation (perhaps, in the form of a compromise bill) he wouldn't get the union's support.
"Those decisions will be made by people in the state, and our members in the state know who will stand with them," Richard Trumka, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told ABC's Top Line. "And if Arlen Specter -- he stood with them in the past -- if he continues to stand with them, they'll support him. If he doesn't, they won't support him."
Meanwhile, another union official, in a conversation with the Huffington Post, noted that " both AFSCME and Teamsters endorsed Tom Ridge over the Democrat in [the gubernatorial race in] 1998," pointing to the recent discussion of Ridge putting his hat in the ring for the 2010 Republican senatorial nomination. "Union support for Ridge is not unprecedented in the state," the official added.
As it stands now, Specter's chance to be the Democratic nominee in that race seems relatively solid. The White House has committed itself to campaigning with and raising funds for the Senate veteran. And his poll numbers against Pat Toomey -- the only Republican candidate to official in the race -- are rock solid.
That said, in his interview with the Huffington Post, Howard Dean scoffed at the notion that other Democrats in Pennsylvania will cede the race to Specter if they believe he is vulnerable.
"You don't clear the field in a place like Pennsylvania," said the former Vermont Governor. "You only clear the field by merit. Pennsylvania is too big to have some of these people put your arm round you and say it is not the right time.... and labor is a powerful force in that state."