Since abandoning the GOP a little more than three weeks ago, the senator has been hard at work getting to know the local elected Democratic officials, county chairs and ward leaders who, until recently, have been diligently working to end his Senate career.
Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman James Burn got his courtesy call from Specter earlier this month. Burn recalled that during their 15-minute chat, the senator was “businesslike, relaxed and occasionally funny.”
Most of all, however, he was hungry for political intelligence — the top issues in western Pennsylvania, the names of other party movers and shakers in the region and the best places to hold town hall meetings.
Burn had some questions for Specter, too — about infrastructure issues, the federal stimulus package and the five-term incumbent’s position on the Employee Free Choice Act.
Burn said he noticed that Specter left one thing out of their discussion: a direct appeal for support.
“He didn’t explicitly ask for a commitment, because he didn’t want to disrespect me,” Burn said. “That tells me he wants to come out here and put in the work first. And that’s the sign of a good candidate.”
But if Allegheny County is in any way representative of the rest of the state, Specter will have his work cut out persuading rank-and-file Democrats to get behind him.
“Voters have to get to a comfort level with him as a Democrat that does not exist yet,” Burn said. “If the primary were tomorrow and there were one or two other formidable contenders in the race, I wouldn’t say with any certainty that he would win.”
Evidence of that uncertainty surfaced after a recent Specter event at a downtown Philadelphia law firm. Stephanie Singer, a local ward leader there, said that after watching Specter take questions from some of the roughly 40 people who attended, she still had a question of her own.
She asked it when she found herself sharing an elevator with Specter after the event.
“I asked him whether he was proud of the way he had questioned Anita Hill,” Singer said. “I was curious to know if he had really learned anything about what that issue is and why it makes women so angry.”
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Singer said that she wasn’t entirely satisfied with his response and that she had not been won over by Specter that night.
“I sure hope that [President Barack] Obama and [Pennsylvania Gov. Ed] Rendell got something good in return for their endorsement, because I don’t want him to be my senator,” Singer said. “On the other hand, with their strong endorsement behind him, I also don’t want to see millions wasted on a Senate primary, when there are so many other good uses for Democratic partisan money.”
Specter’s conference calls haven’t been so awkward. A call last Thursday that included the 79-year-old senator, six county chairmen and a handful of local elected officials was expected to last 15 minutes but clocked in at over a half-hour, according to Peggy Grove, chairwoman of the south-central region’s Democratic caucus.
“He sounded energized; he sounded on top of every issue,” said Grove, who was on the call. “I wanted to see whether he was still on top of his game, and he is.”
She said Specter fielded a mix of questions, including how he is organizing his Senate campaign and the strength of his fundraising efforts. When asked for his opinion on whom President Barack Obama should nominate for the Supreme Court, Grove said Specter played it “close to the vest.&dquo;
Earlier this month, Specter spoke with most of the eight regional Democratic caucus chairs by phone for about a half-hour. Mark Longietti, a state representative from Mercer County who was on the call, said Specter primarily used the opportunity to introduce himself and reach out. Longietti said he was keeping an open mind, but like many other Democrats interviewed by POLITICO, he cautioned that an endorsement would have to wait.
John Cordisco, chairman of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, said the Specter team has scheduled a conference call with him and other county chairs from southeastern Pennsylvania for later this month. Cordisco, who has known Specter for nearly three decades, said he has had several private phone conversations with him over the past few weeks and that Specter had accepted an invitation to speak to the Bucks County Democratic executive board on June 10.
“There are people out there that he’s going to have to work a little,” Cordisco said. “There are some real true believers who think that [GOP Senate candidate Pat] Toomey could be beat by pretty much any Democrat.”
Specter’s outreach efforts are, in part, an attempt to refute that idea — and dissuade other Democrats from challenging him for the party’s Senate nomination. The more comfortable Democrats get with him, the less likely it is that he’ll face serious competition for his new party’s nod.
While Joe Torsella, a former aide to Gov. Ed Rendell who most recently ran the National Constitution Center, dropped out of the race on May 14, suburban Philadelphia-area Rep. Joe Sestak has suggested he is strongly considering a bid. At the moment, Specter’s only announced opponent is state Rep. William C. Kortz II, a Pittsburgh-area legislator who is largely unknown outside western Pennsylvania.
Specter’s efforts are already showing signs of traction. Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen said he had met with Specter once since he switched parties and described it as “a good exchange about our views and where we go from here.”
Groen is one of the party leaders who are working behind the scenes to clear the Democratic primary field for Specter.
“I love Joe Sestak. I think he’s a wonderful guy, but I still don’t want him running against Sen. Specter,” Groen said, adding that he had already spoken to Sestak to make his position clear.
Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas notes that the senator had a head start on getting acquainted with Pennsylvania Democrats.
“Outreach to Democratic groups is something you always had to do in Pennsylvania, when you are out-registered as much as Republicans have been,” Nicholas said. “This outreach is a continuation of a careerlong effort, albeit much more with the rank-and-file party leaders than he has done in the past.”
Nicholas said the senator had already participated in at least a half-dozen calls and had more planned. The calls, he said, follow a predictable format: an introduction by T.J. Rooney, the state Democratic Party chairman who is helping facilitate some of the outreach, with most of the time reserved for a Q & A. Rooney is sometimes accompanied by Mary Isenhour, the state party’s executive director and a top Democratic operative who helped run Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania.
Nicholas noted that Specter is expected to ramp up his travel around the state beginning in June, including an address to several hundred local Democratic committee members at a convention in Pittsburgh on June 5. Specter plans to focus on eastern and central Pennsylvania in June, western Pennsylvania in July and everywhere else in August.
Even party leaders who favor a competitive primary concede that the getting-to-know-Arlen tour will make it tough for any Democrat to mount a successful challenge to Specter.
Clff Wilson, chairman of the Democratic Party in Delaware County — Sestak’s home base — describes his area as a “hotbed of anti-Specterism” but notes that most of the action taking place at the moment involves party insiders trying to drum up support for Specter.
It’s music to the ears of Nicholas, Specter’s campaign manager.
“There’s definitely a steep learning curve, because the Democratic Party just organizes differently,” Nicholas said. “But ultimately, once you figure out those vagaries, it doesn’t take all that long.”