The late Arlen Specter rose through Pennsylvania state politics to the office of U.S. Senator. His journey was instructive.  From 1951-1965, he was a Democrat. He read the shifting winds, running as a Republican  and winning the race for Philadelphia District Attorney.   In 1980, he was elected Senator, where he remained for the rest of his career.

He was often controversial but mostly effective in the Senate.  His inquisition of Anita Hill in the momentous hearings on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, the rebuke of his party over its impeachment  of Bill Clinton, his criticism and investigation of Bush II’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans, are a few highlights of his Senate tenure, which ended in 2010, after his defection, when he was defeated in his bid for reëlection. 

Specter was part of what remained of the centrist element of the GOP. As the party veered farther to the right, he broke ranks more often with his Republican caucus.  As the polarization in the Senate became extreme, his crossing over became critical, sometimes being the vote on which a bill hinged. He was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of the 2009 Recovery Act.

Feeling the changing mood of Republican voters, in 2009, he switched parties,  becoming a Democrat again. He constituted the 60th Senator in the filibuster-proof Senate that passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.  Later that year, he was defeated by a Republican challenger. 

Last week’s Republican primary in Alabama brought Arlen Specter to mind. Roy Moore, twice thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court for trying to turn his back in time, bested Luther Strange, placeholder after Jeff Sessions vacated his seat to become Trump’s Attorney General.  Trump, spilling political capital, jumped into the fray, backing  Strange. To the liberal eye, Moore and Strange don’t seem very different. But for those more attuned to the subtlety of Republican politics, there may be a world of difference.

There is a splintering among Republicans. There is the off-the-charts reactionaries, like Ted Cruz, archly conservative and just plainly arch. Then there is someone like Mitch McConnell, deeply conservative but pragmatic, without the evangelical overlay.  There are one or  two centrists left, who, like Specter,  weigh in on matters from a non-ideological point of view. Susan Collins of Maine falls within that bracket. She deliberates over issues like healthcare.  She is an endangered species.

And in a category all his own, Rand Paul.

If the party fractures, some incumbents will have to decide if they still belong under the Republican flag. The farther right the party moves, the more likely the remaining centrists will have to find a new home.  They may not join the Democrats, as Specter did, especially if the Elizabeth Warren wing is ascendant. Possibly, there may be a coalition of moderates from both camps, which may be sufficient to hold the necessary majorities to legislate.