Arne Carlson gasped when first told that Sen. Arlen Specter, the long-serving Pennsylvania Republican announced today that he was becoming a Democrat.
“Oh no,” said Carlson, disappointment in his voice.
But he quickly found a different tone.
“Well, I can clearly understand his decision,” the former Minnesota governor said in a telephone conversation from his Florida home.
Why the initial disappointed reaction?
“It’s sad because you keep hoping the moderate wing of the party can come back into power. He’s always been a giant. He’s a leader. He’s independent. He’s a good thinker,” said Carlson, who over the years has flirted with the notion of leaving the Republican Party.
Minnesota has a history of high-profile politicians switching parties or abandoning party designation on endorsement issues. Arne Carlson, for example, endorsed Barack Obama last fall, as did former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger.
Currently, the highest-profile party switcher is Sen. Norm Coleman, who is still fighting to reclaim his Republican Senate seat with his appeal of the recent Senate retrial ruling, He launched his Minnesota political career running successfully as a Democrat for mayor of St. Paul. He then switched parties and ran successfully for re-election as a Republican. Then, as the 1998 GOP standard bearer, Coleman lost the governor’s race to Jesse Ventura before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2002.
High-profile names make the jump
Other Minnesota politicians changing parties include former Republican state Sen. Dean Johnson, who became a DFLer; former Republican auditor Judi Dutcher, who became a Democrat; former Republican Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, who first became an Independent and then a DFLer; and former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, who became an Independent.
Arne Carlson, much like Specter, long has been considered an outsider in his own political party for many of the same reasons. Like Specter, Carlson was progressive on social issues and conservative on many fiscal issues.
The height of the displeasure Carlson felt from his own party came in 1994, when his own party refused to endorse him despite his popularity as the incumbent governor.
“I remember giving a speech in St. Cloud before the convention,” said Carlson. “I was nearly booed off the stage. I think I finished my speech, but I was very rattled. It wasn’t the abortion issue at that time — they understood my position (pro-choice) even if they didn’t accept it. But it was the gay issue that inflamed them.
“I remember being disappointed at the time in the media,” Carlson continued. “To my way of thinking, the media didn’t raise the right question after that speech. Their question was: Why can’t this guy get along with his own party? Then came the convention, when the delegates stood and turned their backs on me. That was something of a galvanizing point. The media started to change — the flavor of the questions were against the party.”
Carlson went on to easily win the primary and then crushed DFLer John Marty in the general election. He was still popular at the end of his second term.
“But the party didn’t get the message,” said Carlson.
In many ways, Carlson said, he believes Specter has had a more difficult time with the party than he’s had.
“I think when you’re in a legislative body, there’s probably a constantly submerged stress that you need to follow along,” said Carlson. “You have more flexibility as the executive.”
The more he thought about Specter’s decision, the more he empathized with it.
“The only real surprise is that he wants to run again,” said Carlson of the 79-year-old Specter. “But because he does want to run again (in 2010), I’m sure he understood that the party would run somebody against him, so he’s saying, ‘Look, if you’re going to run against me, let’s do it on an even playing field.’ ”
Carlson sad to see moderate GOP forces shrink
The loss of Specter is a big one for Republican moderates, Carlson said, making a comeback for that branch of the party all the more difficult. What remains to be seen, he said, is whether Democrats will be able to take advantage of the narrowness of the Republican Party.
“If Democrats would moderate just a little on the fiscal end of things, they would attract more and more Republicans,” Carlson said. “But it would mean they’d have to impose a little more discipline on themselves.”
Still calling himself a Republican, Carlson endorsed President Obama in the campaign and expected that he’d be deluged with angry responses.
“I was shocked at the few negatives I received,” he said. “In fact, I received far more compliments that I did criticisms — even from Republicans. But that doesn’t mean the party activists are going to get the message.”
The perspective of Tim Penny, who was a conservative DFLer as a U.S. congressman and, by 2002, a candidate for governor under the Independence Party flag, was a little more skeptical about Specter’s motives than Carlson. He suggested that Specter may not be making the move for any great philosophical reason but, rather, for political survival.
“The 180-degree switch perplexes me,” said Penny. “It’s one thing to move from middle left or middle right to the middle, but when you change parties as he’s doing, you’re signing on to a much bigger agenda. You’re advancing issues you might not agree with.”
Penny did a quick retrospective of Specter’s career.
“Reagan was a very conservative president, and he [Specter] was happy to stay in the fold with him,” Penny said. “He felt content with George W. Bush, who was very conservative. Like him or not, President Clinton was more moderate than Obama is and he [Specter] did not leave the party. So here we are in 2009 and he’s saying that the party’s too far right? OK, I can see you’re not today’s Republican, but what about the last three decades? I think you have to factor in that this is a calculating, shrewd politician.”
Indeed, Specter would have faced a very difficult primary battle in Pennsylvania for the upcoming election.
Penny sees uncomfortable ‘middle ground’
Penny, who endorsed Sen. John McCain in the presidential race, does agree with Carlson that the middle ground often is uncomfortable for politicians, with abortion often serving as a litmus test for activists of both parties.
That means, Penny believes, that there is room for the Independence Party “when the timing is exactly right.”
Laughing, he suggested that the timing in Minnesota might be right if Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state Legislature fail to reach agreement on a budget in special session after special session.
“If you held an election right after the third special session in July, that would be good timing (for an Independent),” Penny said.
Sheila Kiscaden, a former state senator from Rochester, has made the move all the way across Minnesota’s spectrum. She started as a Republican, became an Independent and ended up a DFLer. She has empathy for Specter’s move.
“I’m sure he’s gone through a process similar to what I went through,” Kiscaden said. “It’s something that starts in your mind.”
Kiscaden spent 10 years in the Minnesota Senate as a Republican.
“But I was a centrist from the beginning,” she said.
That cost her the party’s endorsement in 2002, because some of her positions on funding education and on social issues were seen as too liberal by party activists. She ran as an Independent in 2002 and defeated both the DFL and Republican Party candidates but decided to continue to caucus with Republicans.
“I was the only one (Independence Party candidate) who won, so when I got elected, I saw that all five other people in the Legislature from my part of the state were Republicans,” she recalled. “So I decided if I was going to do the best for my area of the state, I should work closely with them. I stayed in the Republican caucus.”
She wasn’t a popular member of the club.
“Made it two years, until the spring of 2004,” she said. “Dick Day [who was the Republican’s Senate leader at the time] called me and said I was no longer welcome in the caucus and that my desk would be moved,” she said.
Kiscaden ‘divorced’ two political parties
The issue that had finally forced the divorce from her party was her support of items in a bonding bill that the party faithful didn’t agree with.
She ended up caucusing with the DFL for the remainder of the session.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” she said, predicting that Specter will get the same embraces when he switches.
In the next session, the DFL offered her leadership of a committee, even though she still was officially an Independent. Then, she opted to run as a DFLer for lieutenant governor, with Kelly Doran, a moderate, at the head of the ticket.
The campaign went nowhere, and her political days ended — at least for the time being.
“I don’t agree with Arne that it’s a sad thing for the Republican Party [that Specter is leaving],” Kiscaden said. “The Republican Party has been captured — I’ve said that before, and every time I do, I get in trouble. But it’s true. The sad part is that it’s hard for anybody from either party to get elected for a statewide office from the middle. … The endorsing process requires strict adherence to party platforms that are out of step with most Minnesotans. That’s why you have a third of the people saying they aren’t a member of either party anymore.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.