Specter's EFCA Move Helps Him With Primary: Norquist

In announcing his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act on Tuesday, Sen. Arlen Specter -- labor's best hope for a Republican defector -- declared that politics had not factored into the equation.

"This announcement should end the rumor mill that I have made some deal for my political advantage," the Pennsylvania Republican declared from the Senate floor. "I have not traded my vote in the past and I would not do so now."

Maybe so. But it is impossible to not, at the very least, weigh the electoral implications and, more cynically, see political machinations behind Specter's decision. One day after he announced his opposition to EFCA -- a union-supported measure that the GOP views as apocalyptic -- a Quinnipiac University poll showed the Pennsylvania senator trailing his potential primary opponent Pat Toomey by 14 percentage points.

Was it coincidental that Specter, cognizant of his uphill electoral climb, took off of the table one of the main issues that could drive Toomey's candidacy? Democrats certainly think so.

"Could he look any more blatantly politically opportunistic to flip his vote day before this came out?" one strategist asked. "He had to know about this poll."

Indeed, as it stands now, even top-ranking Republican officials are acknowledging that the possibility of a Toomey run -- the Club for Growth president challenged Specter in 2004, only to lose the primary by one percent point -- has precipitously decreased.

"The argument for primary-ing Specter just diminished," said Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, who broke the news of Specter's EFCA position. "Not to zero. But it just diminished."

"This move was very important," Norquist added. "It speaks to the business community ... Look, there are a handful of Republicans in the House who voted for card check when they had nowhere near the pressure Specter had ... so from a free market perspective, from a conservative perspective, it is not only the sound pro-liberty position to take, it also took some incredible guts. Most people don't have this much pressure on them. So it is huge."

There are several interpretations as to why Specter made the decision he did on the Employee Free Choice Act.

The first: he simply didn't think the politics of the bill were right. That said, the Senator let it be known, during his floor statement, that he wanted reform in labor law. Moreover, he backed cloture in 2007 and co-sponsored the bill in 2003.

The second: it was the only lifeline he had left. The 2010 Senate election in Pennsylvania should be tilted heavily in the Democratic Party's favor, owed largely to advancements in voter registration from 2008. Specter was promised the backing of state and national unions if he supported EFCA. But he couldn't get to that point if he didn't fend off Toomey in the primary. And as a veteran pol, he decided to live another day.

The third interpretation is a hybrid of ideology and politics. Specter fundamentally backs EFCA, the logic goes, but he knows that it would never have been palatable in the current economic environment or in this Congress. By announcing his opposition, but making it conditional ("The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time," said the Senator), he has pushed the debate back a year or two while saving his own political hide.

All of these theories may contain elements of truth. They also underscore two fundamental points: the primary system works, in that it puts acute pressure on a sitting Senator on one particular issue; and being a self-described Republican moderate in the current Congress is uniquely challenging. Of all former politicians, perhaps former Senator Lincoln Chafee understands this best. And when I asked him about Specter just a few weeks ago, he showed sympathy for his one-time colleague.

"It's enormous pressure, especially with the threats of primary," Chafee said of Specter. "It is a no win. You are trying to help move the country forward and you have this small universe of a Republican primary in Pennsylvania, you are in for a scrap in it."