After Specter, 3 More GOP Defections?

All eyes are on Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and John McCain.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party amid an uphill GOP primary battle in Pennsylvania has fidgety Republicans worried that others will follow—specifically, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and the 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. But top congressional leadership aides are dismissing the talk of GOP copycat switchers. "The lefty media would love to make this into a larger story about the status of the GOP, but in reality it is not," says a top Senate Republican leadership aide. He explained that Specter told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the switch was made more because he was losing in state GOP primary polling than because of any problem with the Republican Party. "If the polling said he would need to turn into a rabbit to keep his job, they'd be stocking up on carrots at campaign headquarters," says the aide. As for the Maine senators, GOP officials say that they don't have any problem winning elections there as Republicans. And McCain's past status as the Republican presidential nominee most likely prevents him from switching parties. In the House, there are no Republicans identified as leaning Democrat. What's more, officials say that the Democrats don't have much to offer Republicans who switch because there is a long line of senior Democrats angling for chairmanships.

Others say that instead of dwelling on Specter, the Republicans should use the event as a wake-up call to return to key root issues. "In the long run, we'll get a party driven by a movement—as we had during Reagan and in the '90s with all the new people winning and leading to a congressional majority—instead of a party trying to placate, and thus manage, the grass-roots movement," says a Republican adviser. Greg Mueller, who's worked on GOP presidential campaigns, says, "The Republicans have a brand and trust problem that ties back to the big spending years of the Bush administration and Congress. We punted being the party of limited government, which drew in independents and center Democrats that now do not trust us. Specter was a part of that problem and has been voting left his entire career. He was uncomfortable with Reagan, for heaven's sake." Once the anger over Specter's switch mellows, party officials may use the event to push in a more united way for a new message, à la 1994 and the Contract With America. Mueller and others say that the new-message campaign will have to push outside the beltway to disaffected Republicans.