(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jewish Democrats are welcoming news that the US Senate's only Jewish Republican member is leaving the GOP, labeling the move proof of the Republicans' dwindling appeal to American Jews.
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that he would be switching parties, and with it give the Senate 59 Democratic votes - one shy of a filibuster-proof majority, which they hope to reach should Al Franken finally win his recount race in Minnesota. The close Minnesota vote has apparently knocked out Norm Coleman's reelection bid, although the court case has yet to be officially concluded. Coleman was the only Jewish Republican before November's election.
In making the switch, Specter said, "The Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the Right" and "I've found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy."
He also acknowledged that the tough fight he faced getting reelected as a Republican in 2010 was a factor in his decision. He called the prospect of winning as a Republican "bleak," as his moderate GOP voters had shifted to the Democratic Party.
"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," said Specter, 79, who began his career as a Democrat before becoming a moderate Republican in 1965, only to watch that wing of the party slowly dwindle in support.
"Over the last decade, there are fewer and fewer Republican Jewish office holders at the national level," said National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira Forman. "The Republican Party's continued shift to the Right has had negative implications for GOP support in the Jewish community."
He asserted that the moderate face of the Republican party - which has traditionally held the most appeal for Jewish voters - had been disappearing, as reflected in Specter's decision.
Now only one Republican Jewish member remains in either branch of Congress - Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor.
But Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks pointed out that Cantor, the minority whip, was the second most powerful Republican in the House and that Republican Jews held governorships and other state leadership positions across the country.
"To get into this head count is an unreasonable and unrealistic measure of support in the Jewish Republican community," he said.
He called the Republican Party extremely "pro-Israel" and said Specter's move wouldn't affect that position.
Few expect any shift in congressional support for Israel based on this change.
Brooks argued that Specter's move had clearly been motivated by a desire to preserve his political career, and that the key issue that led Specter to leave the Republican Party wasn't social issues or other pet conservative interests but an economic position "that the mainstream of the Republican Party is united on."
Such mainstream appeal would make it a mistake to draw conclusions about the party pushing out moderates, Brooks said.
He was referring to US President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, which Specter joined just two other Republicans in Congress in approving.
Yet Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of a few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate and one of the two who joined Specter in voting for the stimulus, called her colleague's party defection another sign that the GOP needed to move toward the center.
"Ultimately, we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding," she said. "If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle."
Specter told a news conference he did not intend to become an "automatic 60th vote" for Democrats trying to approve Obama's agenda of health care, energy and education by year's end. As evidence, he reaffirmed his opposition to legislation making it easier for workers to form unions, a bill that is a top priority for organized labor and backed by the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress.
AP contributed to this report.