WASHINGTON (JTA) — The announcement by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that he was switching parties and becoming a Democrat leaves no Republican Jew in the U.S. Senate, and just one in the entire U.S. Congress.
"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter, 79, said in a statement. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
Specter, who announced the switch at a news conference Tuesday, made the move in time to compete in Democratic primaries for the 2010 election.
The veteran senator’s switch means that for the first time in decades, a moderate GOP Jewish voice — embodied over the years not only by Specter but also Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and the late Jacob Javits of New York — will be absent from the Senate.
It brings Democrats one vote shy of a filibuster-busting quorum of 60 senators, and they look increasingly likely to pick up the remaining seat in Minnesota. Al Franken appears favored to win a court battle there with Norm Coleman, until last November the only other Republican Jew in the Senate.
In the wake of President Obama’s resounding victory among Jewish voters last November — some 78 percent — Specter’s move also raises questions about the Jewish role in a Republican Party that until recently was believed to be making strides in the community.
The joke has persisted at Republican Jewish Coalition gatherings for a decade or so: Back in the 1980s, when we started, we could meet in a phone booth. Now we’re packing a ballroom.
George W. Bush managed to increase his polling in the community from 19 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2004, but then came Obama’s strong showing last year — with Jewish Democratic activists insisting that GOP moderates are being increasingly shut out by conservative Republicans.
"In this day and age, the Democratic Party is a big tent and the Republican Party wants to circle the wagons closer," said Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Fred Zeidman, a longtime Bush ally, major GOP fund-raiser, moderate and the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, sees Specter’s departure as a clarion call for Jewish Republicans to push the message that the party is not as extreme as Specter is suggesting.
"All of us who are moderates need to be much more vocal," he said. "Let everyone know the Republican Party is not ultra-conservative."
Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said such an effort was under way and that he was disappointed Specter was leaving at such a critical time.
"Rather than staying and helping to move the party in the direction" he wanted it to go, Brooks said, "he’s leaving precisely at the time the party is embarking on an effort to remake the party."
Brooks added that the Specter announcement was a surprise considering that he had just spoken to the senator last week about attending the RJC annual meeting in June and future events that the RJC wanted to do with him.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Specter said of such critics, "Frankly the disappointment runs in both directions."
In recent months, Specter’s best-known dissent from the GOP was his vote — along with two other Republican moderates — clinching passage for Obama’s economic stimulus package.
But in his news conference Specter stressed his moderation on social issues — exactly the issues that continue to keep Jews from voting Republican, despite the party’s strong pro-Israel posture.
He noted his bucking party opposition to embryonic stem cell research and, in general, backing increased funding for health issues.
"Increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health, which I have spearheaded, have saved and prolonged many lives, including my own," said Specter, a cancer survivor.
Specter acknowledged that his poor showing in polls among Pennsylvania Republicans was a factor in his decision. He remained bitter that in 2004 he came within a hair’s breadth of losing the primary to Pat Toomey, a conservative who again has set his sights on Specter’s seat.
"I had a 1 percent primary win in 2004," Specter said. "I’m not prepared to have my 29-year record in Pennsylvania to be decided by the Pennsylvania primary Republican electorate.”
But he said also that the problem was a national one for the GOP, noting losses by Republican moderates in recent years in Rhode Island, Maryland and New Mexico that he attributed in part to tepid national party support.
"It is important to have a two-party system and a moderate wing of the two-party system," he said.
Specter said Democrats had reached out to him for at least five years, including the state’s Jewish governor, Ed Rendell.
"Governor Rendell said if I became a Democrat he’d help me raise money," the senator said. "I responded that if I became a Democrat I wouldn’t need to raise money. I changed my mind about that."
Marcel Groen, the chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee in suburban Philadelphia, said he would fight hard for Specter’s victory in 2010.
"It’s like he’s coming home," Groen said. Party labels for Jewish voters have always been much less important, he added, than Specter’s stances on Israel, "choice issues, gun issues, the whole litany, the stimulus package."
Lonny Kaplan, a top pro-Israel fund-raiser in the Philadelphia area, said Specter’s switch would not affect his popularity among pro-Israel donors; those funders always steer toward a pro-Israel incumbent, and Specter fits the bill.
"There’s no question in my mind," Kaplan said. "The letter you have after your name is not something we focus on."
(Washington correspondent Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report.)