WASHINGTON — The Northeast's dwindling cast of Senate Republicans has Democrats circling Arlen Specter's seat in Pennsylvania, convinced the party is well-positioned to make a competitive race out of the 2010 election.
Leading the pack of prospects -- at least in celebrity -- is Chris Matthews, the MSNBC "Hardball" host and a former Capitol Hill Democratic staffer. The Philadelphia native has been toying with a run for months, and this week he sat down with state Democrats to discuss the prospect of taking on the five-term GOP senator.
Others considered in the mix include Rep. Joe Sestak, who is sitting on $3 million in campaign funds; state Rep. Josh Shapiro; and U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a two-term Philadelphia area lawmaker who has moved up quickly on the Hill and has a Rolodex full of prospective donors from her unsuccessful 2000 Senate run. "We'll see," she said about a repeat bid.
"There are a lot of compelling reasons why serious Democrats would aspire to run in 2010," said Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, who said Matthews had been in Pennsylvania Monday meeting with other Democratic leaders.
"You look at what has gone on in this state in the past six or seven years, and you think nothing is out of reach," Rooney said. Since 2002, Pennsylvania Democrats have grabbed the governor's mansion; unseated the Senate's No. 3 Republican, Rick Santorum; and picked up five U.S. House seats. But just as relevant to the party's optimism is what has happened outside the state. The Northeast lost nearly half its slate of Senate Republicans in the previous two elections, leaving Specter with just three GOP colleagues from the eight Northeastern states: Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
This month's Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that handicaps races, cast Specter as among the four most vulnerable senators of the 35 up for reelection in two years. "He is increasingly isolated from his party as a Republican in a Northeastern sea of blue," said Hershey, Pa.-based pollster Michael Young.
Matthews, 62, who didn't respond to a request for comment, has dismissed questions about a run in recent months as he lays the groundwork behind the scenes. His contract with MSNBC expires in June.
But for Specter, his approval rating in Pennsylvania and his campaign coffers inspire confidence.
Almost six in 10 Pennsylvanians said in an August Quinnipiac University poll that they approve of Specter's job performance -- higher than the ratings for Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey, both Democrats. And Specter has raised $6 million for his re-election run in the last two years, more than any of his colleagues during the period. He has made clear, despite a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease this year at age 78, that he plans to battle for a sixth term.
"Whoever my opponent is, I will be ready," Specter said in an interview earlier this year.
His fundraising is all the more significant heading into 2010 because Senate candidates will be competing for cash with gubernatorial hopefuls in Pennsylvania.
"When you look beyond the trends, you see a much more mixed picture," Young said. "I don't see him particularly endangered any more than he has been in the past."
Previous contests, though, have rarely been easy for Specter. In three of his five general election victories, he won with less than 53% of the vote.
Perhaps his toughest fight came during the primary contest in 2004 against then-Rep. Pat Toomey, who finished within 2 percentage points of Specter and forced the abortion-rights supporter to burnish his conservative credentials.
Toomey, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, has left the door open to a repeat run in 2010. He argues that Specter is in a more vulnerable position than he was four years ago in part because of the tens of thousands of Republicans who changed their voter registrations this year to participate in the Democratic primary.
In the four Philadelphia suburban counties, a region where Specter has traditionally performed well, Republicans have lost more than 61,000 registered voters in the last four years, a shift Toomey contends would help a more conservative opponent in a primary.
Specter has said he's anticipating challenges from both the right and the left. "I've adopted Satchel Paige's philosophy for a long time," he said earlier this year. "Never look over your shoulder. Somebody may be gaining on you."