THE NEW SUPER TUESDAY
On May 18, 2010, which the media had dubbed “the New Super Tuesday,” CNN anchor T. J. Holmes opened the network’s 9 a.m. newscast from Atlanta:
We’ve got a test going on today of the nation’s anti-incumbent fever.… It is a big deal for the country and it could change the balance of power down the road. These primaries we’re talking about today are going to measure something much larger. A nationwide uprising of anger and disgust with Washington …
Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, burst onto the screen from Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. Over her left shoulder, Independence Hall, where the founders had adopted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, glowed through a gray mist. “Here in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter—he has been in the Senate thirty years,” she intoned. “That is a lot of power, that’s a lot of seniority, that’s a lot of sway.” President Obama’s agenda was also at stake, Crowley said.1
Across town in East Falls, I walked alongside my wife through a cold morning rain to my polling place at Alden Park Manor, a historic complex of apartments and gardens. Behind the Jacobean revival building, seven television trucks and vans clogged Schoolhouse Lane and the nearby greenery, their tires gouging the soggy soil.
In a day the press was billing as a referendum on the president’s power, the Tea Party, incumbency, and the political center, my Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary was the marquee contest. Reporters from the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and a slew of other major papers had descended on Philadelphia. MSNBC was broadcasting live from the Loews Hotel. Even Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV sent a camera crew to Pennsylvania.
The worst was happening, as predicted. Whatever chance I had hinged on heavy voting in the African American wards. The rain, which had been pelting Philadelphia all morning, could snuff that turnout.
Just inside the polling place door, a battery of TV cameras idled. I was eighty; this might be my last primary, either way. I used to joke about beating Strom Thurmond’s record: the former Dixiecrat served in the Senate until age one hundred. But another run at eighty-six seemed speculative at best.
I shrugged out of my tan topcoat, presenting myself in basic Senate dress uniform of navy suit over white shirt and red tie. My wife slipped off her black military-style raincoat. Joan, a former four-term Philadelphia city councilwoman, was a prime political adviser. She also softened my prosecutor image. This guy can’t be all bad if he has a nice wife like that, critics have said over the years. Joan and I had begun dating as teenagers in the late 1940s, when I was a University of Pennsylvania sophomore and she was a stunning blonde with a mouth full of braces. We had campaigned for each other. I once took a bullhorn to an Eagles game for her. Most people had never seen a sitting U.S. senator working the Veterans Stadium aisles. “Joan Specter for city council,” I called. “Support Joan Specter. I do.” At a recent fund-raising event, I announced that Joan and I had just celebrated fifty years of happily married life. When the applause ebbed, I said, “Not too bad, out of fifty-seven years of marriage.”
We waded into the media mass. I usually tried to count the cameras, but there were too many and the lights were too bright. This was the first Democratic primary ballot I would cast since 1965. For the forty-five years between those elections, I’d been a Republican. But I was the guy Time magazine had featured as “the Contrarian” in the leadoff profile of a Ten Best Senators package, someone who had never hewn to orthodoxy—of either party. Who had, the Washington Post wrote, turned blurring political lines into an art form.2
When I had arrived in the Senate in 1981, that independence—making judgments and decisions as each vote and issue arose—had placed me snugly within a cabal of centrists. Those moderate senators made the deals that kept the country moving—on highways, health care, domestic violence, and a slew of other issues over the years.
But over the decades, the rise of extremists—in both parties—replaced tolerance with purity tests. For several years, the fringes had been purging centrists, applying screens in which the old Ivory Soap standard of 9944/100 percent pure wasn’t pure enough. Senators began actively campaigning against members of their own caucuses. And they did it with relish, like cannibals devouring colleagues with condiments. “Extremism” was no longer sufficiently extreme to describe what was going on. The quest for ideological purity was destroying comity and compromise and bringing government to a standstill.
With the rise of the intolerant right and the incompetent left, centrists became an endangered species, especially in the GOP. The moderate Republican Wednesday Lunch Club, once nearly two dozen strong, shrank over the years to “the gals from Maine”—Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins—and me. Our lunches moved to my small Capitol “hideaway” office and we became known as “the Mod Squad,” a takeoff on the Vietnam-era counterculture TV series.
Still, coming into the cycle for this race, I had a clear shot at re-election to a sixth term. Former congressman Pat Toomey, who had nearly unseated me in a 2004 Republican primary, had announced a bid for governor. Then, in February 2009, Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill came up for a vote. The stimulus, I became convinced, offered our only chance of averting a 1930s-style depression. I had lived through the Great Depression and was determined not to see it happen again. I took the Republican lead in negotiations, and wound up one of only three Republicans in the entire Congress to vote for the stimulus, and the only one of that trio facing re-election. That was the margin of passage.
As the Republican furor swelled, political pundit Chris Matthews cataloged the demise of GOP moderates and told me, “Now you’re almost the last of the Mohicans, you and Senators Snowe and Collins. Has the party got to change?”
“I believe there has to be more accommodation to different points of view,” I replied, “and not to assert a philosophy which says we’re not going to yield even in the face of enormous problems.”3
But those changes didn’t come. And the backlash to my stimulus vote raged, fed by Tea Party vitriol and my other apostasies from Republican orthodoxy over the years, such as torpedoing Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, championing stem cell research, and pressing to increase the minimum wage and extend unemployment compensation. Toomey abandoned his gubernatorial campaign to run against me. My poll numbers looked bleak.
I wasn’t going to put my twenty-nine-year career in front of that jury, in a closed Pennsylvania Republican primary. I had edged Toomey in 2004, but since then 200,000 moderate Pennsylvania Republicans had become Democrats. I decided in April 2009 to join them. That left only Snowe and Collins as GOP moderates, but they no longer acted consistently centrist; they couldn’t afford to. The Republican center had died. The Democratic center was healthier, but no longer had a common meeting ground.
I had arguably been the Senate’s last Republican independent. Now I awaited another verdict on my career, this time from Democratic voters whose party I had opposed for half a century.
As Joan and I voted and fielded questions from the press, my chief of staff, Scott Hoeflich, and two other aides worked BlackBerrys, tracking the weather across Pennsylvania and the national news. They scrolled for updates on a hotly contested Arkansas primary in which fellow centrist Democrat Blanche Lincoln was fending off a union-funded challenge. Throughout the day, Hoeflich was also swapping data with state and national pooh-bahs, including Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chair and one of my deputies when I was Philadelphia district attorney. Rendell had barnstormed the state with me the past few days and was deploying what Politico called “one of the most storied political operations in the country” to re-elect me.4 My aides weaved through the polling place, coiled to spring at any news, danger, or summons.
My stimulus vote, which had set off this latest round of trouble, was one of ten thousand Senate votes I’d cast and one of countless acts of defiant independence. I’d done it my way successfully for decades, and I thought I could succeed again. But that vote was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It landed atop a mound of other troubles I’d invited over the years. My former law partner Mark Klugheit once said I’d be remembered for believing in a theory that most people doubted when I developed the Single Bullet Conclusion as a young lawyer on the Warren Commission, and for doubting a woman most people believed in my questioning of Anita Hill at Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. I’d added to that legacy by killing Bork’s nomination and voting “Not Proven” on President Clinton’s impeachment, among other acts that alienated sizable slabs of the electorate.
Several weeks earlier, I had enjoyed a double-digit lead among Democrats, before my challenger, Congressman Joe Sestak, began running TV ads. The former three-star admiral advanced steadily as he first aired a biographical spot and followed it with a slashing, negative ad. The final major polls all showed the race too close to call, with Sestak and me tied or within the margin of error. My own tracking polls showed me ahead 43–41. My approval rating had recently hit 65 percent and my favorability rating 56 percent, dazzling numbers, especially in a throw-the-bums-out climate. Still, undecided voters break mostly for the challenger. If they hadn’t embraced Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator by Election Day, they probably wouldn’t. An endangered species might become extinct that day.
If I won, pulling out another tight victory in a nine-lives career, I’d be hailed as a genius, but there wouldn’t be much news. If I lost, the headlines would be huge.
At Alden Park Manor, Andrea Mitchell, the veteran MSNBC reporter who had cut her journalistic teeth in Philadelphia when I was district attorney, opened the fusillade of questions. “Joan, how do you feel this morning?” “Senator, aren’t the polls running against you?” “Can you possibly withstand Sestak’s surge in the face of that devastating commercial labeling you unprincipled, opportunistic, and closely tied to Bush, Roberts, and Alito?”
Over the years, I’d learned to smile through the slings and arrows. An older Philadelphia lawyer and mentor, Mort Witkin, had once admonished, “Never let your face show how hard your ass is being kicked.” Witkin’s other pearl was: “The higher the monkey climbs a flagpole, the more his ass shows.” In other words, the higher you rise, the bigger a target you become.
In a sense, I was not the only monkey on that Primary Day flagpole. Alongside me, or perhaps even higher up, was Obama, who had promised me his full backing. When a reporter shouted, “Why didn’t the president come to Philadelphia for you in the last few days before the election?” he probed an open wound. Some argued that the president had thrown me under the bus, suggesting that Obama thought our prospects weren’t good.
I replied, “He was in Philly every few minutes on TV stations.”
That figurative flagpole also carried incumbency and the political center. Some nine months earlier, at town meetings throughout Pennsylvania, I had taken the first burst of Tea Party fire against incumbents. Constituents had shouted at me: “You’re a socialist, fascist pig.” “Shut up and get out of the way.” One man hollered, “God’s going to stand before you and he’s going to judge you.” He seemed to have an inflated view of a senator’s importance.
So I smiled and answered the reporters’ questions. I felt good, I said. I cracked a few jokes.
We voted at 9 a.m., breaking a 7 a.m. routine set with my first DA race, so I could squeeze in two drive-time radio interviews first. I had left my house at 6:30 a.m., as rain dimmed the dawn, for a five-minute ride to radio station WIP across the Schuylkill River in Bala Cynwood.
For a decade, at 6:45 every Monday morning, I had phoned Angelo Cataldi, a Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter turned sports radio anchor with a manic following. Cataldi thrived on controversy. On his show, then-candidate Obama had made news by describing his grandmother as “a typical white person.”5 My rapport with Cataldi had begun in 2000, when I detailed my Warren Commission work in my book Passion for Truth, and learned that Cataldi was a Single Bullet Conclusion skeptic. As a Phillies and Eagles fan who devoured the sports pages, it was easy for me to find more material. Our on-air chats developed into a mutual admiration society. During one re-election campaign, Cataldi read with unusual gusto a paid ad supporting my candidacy. Studio officials found that excessive, and we went back to the regular political spots for WIP for the next cycle. An in-person visit to Cataldi seemed a must for this tight primary. We exchanged praise and I stressed the importance of every vote and urged my supporters to come out for me.
In the same building, Michael Smerconish, a nationally syndicated radio host, newspaper columnist, and MSNBC personality, broadcast over WPHT, the Big Talker. I had known Smerconish for three decades, through his friendship with my elder son, Shanin. Smerconish was an unabashed supporter, but he was candid about our relationship and never crossed the fine line of objective journalism. After another pitch on Smerconish’s show, we headed to vote.
A photograph of Joan and me at the polling place would run on the front page of the New York Times the next day. Joan radiated grace and poise and dressed as though she had just stepped out of Vogue. We hit two more Philadelphia polling places, at Simon Recreation Center and Finley Playground, where more TV cameras were waiting. The voters were warm. “Good luck today, Senator,” they called. “Hey, I voted for you, Senator.” But they were sparse. And the rain pounded.
Along the way, I later learned, Hoeflich told John Gillespie, one of my senior aides, to e-mail Andrea Mitchell about protocol for a live interview Gillespie had scheduled for me later that day. Hoeflich, who had served earlier as my press secretary, wanted to avoid a repeat of an interview Mitchell had done with me in Washington the previous week.
Mitchell had begun that May 12 interview in the Russell Senate Building rotunda by asking me, “Senator, this is a lot tighter than anyone ever thought it would be. What do you think is going on here? Are you having a hard time selling yourself to Democrats as a newly converted Democrat?” She then asked, in turn, whether an abortion-rights group’s endorsement of Sestak was “a big setback” for me, whether Elena Kagan’s recent nomination for the Supreme Court would force me to defend my earlier vote against Kagan for solicitor general, and why the president wasn’t making more appearances for me. “Is he trying to avoid being tied to someone who he’s not sure is going to win?”
Then Mitchell showed Sestak’s devastating TV attack ad, with my comments about party switching taken out of context, and a clip of my misspeaking at an Allegheny County Democratic event, calling attendees Allegheny County Republicans.
“Does that make it harder to say you’re a true-blue although newly minted Democrat?” she asked. She let me make my case, and then thanked me for the interview. I said, “Always a pleasure, Andrea.”
* * *
As we hit the polling places in the morning, Shanin did something he had never done before: he grabbed a street list, went up to North Philadelphia, and knocked on doors for a couple of hours, to get people to come out to vote. “As I was doing it,” he recalled later, “I was saying to myself, ‘You know, I think this is the last time I’m ever going to have a chance to do this for my dad. So I’m just going to go up there and do that.’ For me, it was therapeutic.”
Shanin had helped run a lot of campaigns for public office, for me and for other candidates, but he usually spent his mornings downtown, where he was a founding partner in the Philadelphia region’s leading plaintiff’s law firm. In the African American neighborhood that day, a lot of people wondered what he was doing there. “Anybody who wondered out loud, I told them. People were very nice.”
* * *
In the car a few minutes after noon, Hoeflich worked his BlackBerry and turned to me. “Senator, I want to update you.” Physically, Hoeflich was a middleweight, but he pulsated energy, even at rest, and could focus his intense blue eyes in a searing stare. Organizing for America (OFA), an extension of the White House political arm, had just e-mailed him its first exit-poll analysis of the day. The report showed a host of demographic and geographic cross-tabs, and looked like a side-effect guide for an experimental diuretic. Based on OFA’s polling and a model they were using, we were up one point overall.
I asked Hoeflich about the poll’s methodology, but he was more intent on clinging to good news. “It means absolutely nothing at all, but it means everything,” he would recall later. “You still have the lead; you’re not trailing. Spirits are up.”
That May 2010 primary marked my twentieth appearance on a ballot. Sometimes I can’t believe how old I’ve grown. Jon Stewart asked me on The Daily Show how old I was. I said, “I forget.” A friend and squash partner had advised me, “Why let a little thing like your date of birth bother you? It happened so long ago.”
For years, I said my squash game was the most important thing I did every day. After a while, I modified it to say it was really the only important thing I did every day. Those workouts were essentially deposits in the health bank against my increasing withdrawals. In the past two decades, I’d survived two brain tumors, a heart bypass, and two bouts with cancer, among other challenges. Since my second round with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chemotherapy in 2008, sleep and exercise had become crucial. I’d been grinding through an hour-long regimen with a trainer at the gym, including a vigorous treadmill run, a series of lower- and upper-body machine exercises, and then “the Plank,” a form of torture in which you brace on your elbows and lift off the deck for one and then two minutes at a time. My Senate colleague John Kerry, after trying the Plank for twenty seconds, said it was too vigorous for somebody his age.
We arrived at the Loews Hotel just in time for Mitchell’s interview. She had become a celebrity in her own right, her status enhanced by her marriage to former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. MSNBC was broadcasting from a corner fishbowl with picture windows and piped-out sound that let passersby watch and listen. Some gawkers dressed and hollered like hockey fans, maybe gearing up for that night’s Flyers playoff game. The Phillies were also playing at home that night, with their ace, Roy Halladay, on the mound, which didn’t bode well for voter turnout.
Mitchell began: “What do you say to those who say your time has come, you did great service, but they want a change?”
I rattled off a list of those who wanted me to stick around, including the Democratic State Committee, the black clergy, and the AFL-CIO. I said the key was who could beat Republican nominee Toomey in the fall, with the GOP threatening to take America back to the eighteenth century.
Mitchell fired her next shot. “Isn’t the White House signaling that it thinks that Sestak would actually be a stronger candidate—younger, more vigorous—that’s the campaign he’s running—against Pat Toomey than you? The president has done a lot for you—robocalls, commercials—but he isn’t here now. He wasn’t here to close it. He didn’t try to do a big rally, you know, in Philadelphia yesterday, turn out that vote.”
“Andrea, he’s on every few minutes on all the TV stations,” I said. “You can’t live on the planet Earth and not see Barack Obama for Arlen Specter. But when you talk about Sestak being more vigorous, you must be smoking Dutch Cleanser. Did you see us on the debate?”
The blogosphere erupted over my Dutch Cleanser line. The Huffington Post ran an item: “Oh, great. So, Arlen Specter, seeking to combat the perception that he is [not] still ‘vigorous,’ cites an old-timey saying about an old-timey product which cannot be found anywhere on the Internet, but maybe you can pick some up at a ‘dollar store.’”6
Mitchell fired her next question: “Are you a true-blue Democrat? Now, you’re not going to switch again on us?”
In closing, Mitchell said she had just been talking to some Democratic Party activists, who reported anemic turnout. “So the rain is not doing you any favors today.”
After the MSNBC interview, we drove to the Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen, where I’d been campaigning since the 1960s. Photos lined the walls, and traditional Jewish deli fare such as corned beef, pastrami, and tongue sandwiches, stuffed cabbage, and matzo ball soup covered the tables, fortifying diners who had packed in against the cold rain.
As Roll Call reported: “The former Republican shook hands and was greeted as though he’d been a Democrat all his life, with a brief chant of ‘Arlen, Arlen, Arlen’ breaking out among those in attendance.”7
Hoeflich recalled: “Everyone’s clamoring to be with him, everyone’s standing to shake his hand, the media is all over him—still photographers, TV cameras. So the boss is working the room—‘Senator, you’ve got to meet this one, you gotta meet that one,’ people are throwing themselves in front of him to get attention. I’m like, ‘We gotta go! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ Push, push, push, push, push. Five minutes. Grab the lunch for Joan, get in the car, let’s move, let’s move, let’s move, let’s move, let’s move. You can’t. You can’t. There’s so many people there, dying to shake his hand.”
I learned later that among the hands I shook was Sestak media consultant Neil Oxman’s. Oxman had also represented some of my earlier opponents, and was quoted in November 2006 after I beat Hodgkin’s for the second time: “When I think of Arlen, I think of those horror movies where you think the guy is dead and in the coffin, and then the last scene is a shot of a hand coming up through the casket. That’s Arlen’s political career.”8 Maybe that thought hit Oxman again at the Famous Deli.
Shortly after we left the deli, Senator Lincoln flamed into the blogosphere over a polling-place snag in Little Rock. She had arrived to vote, only to be turned away by election officials who found that she had already requested an absentee ballot. Critics who questioned Lincoln’s commitment to Arkansas had been deriding her $2 million Virginia home, where the absentee ballot was sent. Reports circulated about the staff snafu of the century. Lincoln wound up showing her driver’s license and filling out a provisional ballot that might be counted after the other returns were tallied. Not the ideal Election Day photo. “This is not only embarrassing, it could prove politically fatal,” the Los Angeles Times cried.9
A candidate can run a disciplined, scientific campaign for months or years, only to get tangled by the caprices of man or nature—a rogue absentee ballot or a rainy forty-five-degree day in the middle of May. My father used to quote a Yiddish proverb, Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht. Man plans and God laughs.
* * *
As we arrived an hour late for a lunch Shanin had arranged at Smith and Wollensky, OFA’s 2 p.m. update flashed. Turnout was approaching early predictions of 1.3 million. My lead had shrunk to one-tenth of a percent.
I took a place at a big round table, among a lot of old friends from a lot of campaigns and a lot of years. As Shanin later recalled, “I think everybody at the table felt that the day was going to be uphill for us. Nobody really said it.… He came in—and he was very positive, very talkative. But he didn’t know, with precision, what was going to happen. Nobody did.”
Right after lunch, our crews in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg phoned in breathless reports that the clouds were breaking, the sun was coming out, turnout was up, we’re good.
Time for the most important part of the day. We drove to the squash court for a session with Pop Shenian, one of my regular partners and a longtime supporter. Shenian ran a commercial real estate company, had a black belt in karate, and played an intense squash game.
Along the way, Hoeflich asked me, “What are we going to do about the lucky tie? When are we going to go shopping?” Every Election Day, I bought a tie. The previous election, in 2004, I had chosen a purple-and-white number with white Burberry emblems. An earlier campaign tie from Brooks Brothers had red hoops sewn on a blue field. After the election, I put them into my regular rotation.
We stopped at Burberry in the downtown shopping district, where I had bought the 2004 tie. On that trip, an associate had greeted us, saying, “I’ve been waiting for you all day; I’ve got a whole selection for you.” My chief of staff now hunted for the same clerk, but he wasn’t there.
I told Hoeflich, “Scrap it, let’s go.”
“What about the lucky tie?” he insisted. We need this, he was thinking; this is part of the formula for victory.
Hoeflich had his own Election Day ritual. “I was wearing my lucky suit,” he remembered later. “Navy blue suit, windowpane, like a faint white windowpane, brown belt, brown shoes, Canali. I had worn it for all our big campaign events, like when the president came, I wore it.… My father had bought it for me. Things go well when I’m wearing this one.”
“All right,” I said. “Tell Pop we’ll be there in five minutes. Let’s go do this.”
We pulled into the Bellevue Hotel parking lot, trotted inside, dropped off our squash gear, and headed back to the stores. The rain had ebbed, and the sunlight now bounced off the puddles.
“It was fun to see him shopping for the tie,” Hoeflich would recall. “There was this sense of purpose and urgency and need. It was like a cook searching for the right ingredient to make it come out well.”
We walked into Polo. None of the ties appealed to me. We stepped into Brooks Brothers. Nothing grabbed me there, either. Then Barney’s. All new-age trend, not my style. Back to Burberry. I looked hard, but just couldn’t find a winner. I told Hoeflich, “All right, let’s walk back to Brooks Brothers. I’ll pick the best tie I can find.”
Back at Brooks Brothers, an exuberant salesman rushed to greet us. “Senator, welcome in! I voted today, I voted for you. I’m so happy you’re here today. This made my day; I can’t wait to tell my wife.”
“Did your wife vote?” I asked.
“No, but I’ll call her right now, make sure she votes.”
Within minutes, I found The One: small white sailboats on an ocean-blue field, all divided by diagonal magenta and light blue stripes. “Okay,” I told Hoeflich. “Let’s get it. Meet me back at the squash club.”
My aides gave Shenian, a squash partner of nine years, a cold assessment of the primary, based on the latest reports. “When I played him that day,” Shenian later recalled, “I took a little off the gas, accelerator—just because I thought it would lighten the mood a little bit.” Shenian had played with me during my two rounds of chemo. “He was so gaunt at the time, I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “He thought it was extraordinarily important to fight through it. I just saw such bravery from him—he wanted no pity whatsoever. I pushed him very hard. If he ever sensed I would go easy on the court, he would fire off at me—he wouldn’t put up with it.”
But on Primary Day, Shenian thought he was being artful, that I wouldn’t detect his easing off. I won the best-of-three match. As soon as the final point ended, I told Shenian, “You gave me a salesman’s game,” that is, the kind of soft game a salesman gives a customer.
“I just looked at him,” Shenian later recalled. “I was just very surprised he was able to pick up on it. Because I wasn’t blatant about it. I wanted to put him in a better frame of mind.”
After squash, I put on the new tie, which complemented the navy suit and white shirt. But then, what wouldn’t?
The 4 p.m. OFA update hit. We’d lost the lead and were now down by three-tenths of a point. Voting was running ahead of projections. The new model predicted turnout at over 1.5 million people. But I didn’t find out any of this until later. “I didn’t tell the boss,” Hoeflich said later. “I didn’t have the heart in me to give him bad news.”
Back at MSNBC’s Loews Hotel field studio, I eased into a chair for Chris Matthews’s Hardball. Outside the fishbowl, my supporters and Sestak’s pressed up to the glass, jockeying for a camera’s attention. Our crew included several burly International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers volunteers, who waved “Jobs” signs and squeezed Sestak’s bantamweights out of the way.
Matthews, a Philadelphia native, began, “Senator, I was over at the Famous Deli where you were today, and everybody says you by a couple of points; that close.” He asked a few tough questions worthy of the Hardball moniker, then closed by saying, “I think you’re the first guy I ever voted for.”
The next stop was IBEW Local 98’s hall at Seventeenth and Spring Garden Streets, where the union had lent us space for our campaign headquarters. Signs plastered the front doors: “Specter = Union Jobs” and “Sen. Specter and the Flyers—Both Great for Phila.” The IBEW was by far the biggest-spending political committee in the state.10 I got a tour of the command center, a converted meeting room where the brain trust was working cutting-edge hardware and software to direct get-out-the-vote efforts, file legal challenges, and monitor precincts. The place looked like mission control for a space launch, with consoles in tiered circles around a giant screen in the center well.
Brad Koplinski, our statewide political director, briefed me, explaining how this color on the map showed high turnout, while that one showed low turnout. They brought up satellite video of neighborhoods and told me we’d completed 90 percent of our “turf package,” the houses of likely voters we needed to canvass based on performance in previous elections. Thousands of volunteers, bolstered by OFA staff and paid workers—“Arlen’s Army”—had been going door to door, sometimes making two or more tours to complete a given street. Most of Pennsylvania’s 4.3 million registered Democrats lived in the Philadelphia area.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, somebody passed me a note. My briefing was keeping volunteers from making get-out-the-vote phone calls. “Hoeflich is telling me to leave you alone and get the hell back to work,” I said with a smile. “So get back to work.”
As we headed for the Philadelphia Center City Sheraton, where we would hold our Primary Night party, the 6 p.m. OFA numbers hit. We had regained the lead. We were now up half a point. But Hoeflich had stopped sharing the updates with me. “He’s not asking, I’m not telling.”
The Center City Sheraton was the same hotel where I had celebrated my first Senate election victory in 1980. That night, thirty years earlier, the hotel had been new, and so had I.
After Joan and I checked in, I did a quick gaggle with reporters who had gathered in the Independence Ballroom, already laced with streamers. They asked how I felt about my primary prospects. If we got the turnout the experts in the green eyeshades said we needed, I told them, we would win.
“Rendell wants to meet with you,” Hoeflich whispered. “He’s on the way over. Can I bring him up to the room at 7:15?”
Sure, I told him. Around 6:30 p.m., I went to my room to take a nap. Understandably, I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the tight polls and the morning rain that might have doused my winning margin. My four defeats, for mayor, district attorney, senator, and governor, before winning my Senate seat in 1980, moved to the front of my mind. I phoned Hoeflich around 7 p.m. and told him I was heading downstairs now to work the crowd, because I wanted to be back upstairs at eight o’clock watching the returns.
“All right,” Hoeflich said, “but Rendell’s on the way.”
“Ah, he’s always late.” I had given Ed Rendell his first job out of law school in 1967 as an assistant district attorney. We had become not just friends, but neighbors, living a few doors apart on Warden Drive in Philadelphia. Rendell had a reputation for always being late, which he’d earned. Just the night before, stuck in traffic, he had missed headlining my final rally outside the Phillies’ stadium. Rendell often recounted an episode when he had arrived twelve minutes late for a meeting at the DA’s office, and I “excoriated” him for making eleven people wait, prorated their salaries, and told him that he had wasted $4,872.
The 7 p.m. OFA report showed our lead had expanded. We were now up by seven-tenths of a point. We’d gained a full point in two hours. The gurus continued to estimate turnout at a high 1.5 million voters. High turnout was key for me.
Rendell arrived at the Sheraton more or less on time, and we worked the ballroom. We had half an hour until the polls closed at 8 p.m., and I wanted to prod every voter I could who hadn’t yet cast a ballot. Supporters weren’t scheduled to arrive until eight, so the crowd was sparse, but cameras and reporters had already set up on a riser in the rear.
“Isn’t it sad that people worry about a few raindrops?” one reporter asked, suggesting a depressed turnout that would hurt me. “I mean, they go out in rain for everything else. This is important stuff here. As Joe Biden would say, ‘This is a big deal.’”
“I never heard him say that little in one sentence,” I replied. “Joe Biden having a five-word sentence? I don’t think you’re right about that.”
Another reporter asked, “Anything you wish you’d done differently over the course of the last year?”
“No regrets, no regrets, no regrets.” I told them the stimulus vote was the single most important vote of ten thousand that I had cast, and it excommunicated me from the Republican Party. And then I provided the sixtieth vote on comprehensive health care reform. “I wasn’t sent to Washington to play it safe.… So I have something to show for what I’ve done.”
“Senator, you seem—and I may be reading you wrong—but you seem remarkably mellow,” CNN’s Crowley told me. “Sort of at peace.”
We bantered, but the talk soon grew serious. “We are seeing the Republican Party move far, far to the right,” I said. “We’re about to see some fundamental institutions in our society challenged. It could be a different world. We could be back in the eighteenth century if the Tea Party people do what they want to do.”
A reporter asked, “Senator, do you remember another year when the voters have seemed so angry and so upset at incumbents?”
“No,” I said. “This is an all-time record. And I understand it. The gridlock in Washington is fierce. You can’t pass anything.” I’d been fighting that gridlock, consorting with the enemy, as many Republicans saw it. “I’ve crossed the aisle perhaps once too often. That’s a laugh line, guys.”
Another reporter asked, “Is there as much anger on the left as there was on the right in terms of people sort of trying to purify ranks?”
“I think Joe Lieberman would tell you yes. I think there has been a lot of anger there. In all quarters.” Lieberman, a centrist and a friend, had lost a Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006, retaining his seat by winning the general election as an independent. He planned to retire at the end of 2012.
Paul Kane of the Washington Post asked why I was running on my seniority and my record of delivering for Pennsylvania, given the virulent anti-incumbent climate.
“Remember Popeye, who used to say, ‘I am what I am’?” I replied. “I don’t think anyone could dress me in different attire. I am what I am.”
Channel 10 wanted to go live. “Right now,” I said, ready to go. No, the reporter said, at 8 p.m. “Not a chance,” I said. The hit wouldn’t do any good once the polls had closed.
Around 7:40 p.m., we rode up to our suite on the twenty-fourth floor so Joan and I could grab a quick dinner. That’s when I had the first debate of the evening. I wanted to watch some news channels, to get the latest on Blanche Lincoln and other developments. Joan wanted to watch a movie. We settled on Fox. By 8 p.m., room service brought salad and club sandwiches. Down the hall, Hoeflich was working a TV and his BlackBerry.
On CNN’s 8 p.m. report, anchor Campbell Brown was saying:
Tonight’s breaking news, the elections that could set the national political agenda. The voters’ choices in a handful of states matter to all of us, including President Obama. The backlash threatening incumbents could also deliver a blow to moderates, sending Congress running for the extremes left and right, and spelling a whole new level of gridlock.11
Soon the networks broke to Rand Paul, an optometrist and Tea Party activist who had just won a Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, where the polls had closed at 7 p.m. Paul had run on a limited-government platform, arguing that federal civil rights laws should not bar businesses from engaging in racial discrimination.
“I have a message, a message from the Tea Party,” Paul exulted. “A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We have come to take our government back!”
From the other room, Hoeflich called, “The returns are starting to come in!” With 2 percent reporting, I was ahead 65 percent to 35 percent. But those were Philadelphia precincts, where I needed a massive lead to offset other areas.
I stepped toward a window and looked out. For some minutes, I gazed down at Philadelphia from the twenty-fourth floor, just ruminating about the view.
Toward 8:30 p.m., I headed downstairs to the “war room,” a chamber off the ballroom with a separate entrance. In the ballroom, Rat Pack songs were playing, including Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” and “Return to Me,” and Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes.” Guests devoured prime rib, shrimp cocktail, and bacon-wrapped scallops. They sipped themed drinks, including one that staffers had named an “Arlentini,” after my Beefeater and vermouth martini, heavy with olives. In the windowless bunker, staff and experts were tracking the results. More high-tech screens, lights, and audio feeds.
At this point, I could only watch as my fate was decided.
Copyright © 2012 by Senator Arlen Specter with Charles Robbins