Less than a year ago — but what now seems like a political lifetime — the Republican Party hoped it was on the verge of making serious gains among Jewish voters in Pennsylvania and nationwide.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), considered highly popular among American Jews, had decided to back John McCain for president, and was considered a top prospect to become the Republican nominee's running mate. Poll numbers suggested that many Jewish voters were reticent about Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Of course, we all know how that story ended.
For his second in charge, McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a social conservative — a move that many said sank his chances with moderates.
For his part, Obama engaged in major outreach efforts to Jews (and picked popular Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as his running mate); he also went on to score a decisive win in November, capturing some 78 percent of the Jewish vote nationally, according to exit polls.
Now that U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter — perhaps the GOP's most prominent Jewish politician — has bolted parties, the question is: What happens to the Jewish role in the Republican camp? Do the GOP and the Republican Jewish Coalition have to return to square one to attract Jews?
Specter himself weighed in on the issue.
"I believe that the Republican Party will continue outreach to the Jewish voters," Specter said on May 1, during his first news conference in Philadelphia after announcing that he'll run in the 2010 Democratic primary. "I'm just sorry that I couldn't continue to be part of the effort to build a two-party system due to the realities of the day."
The political winds had clearly shifted since the last time Specter faced Republican primary voters in 2004, with Democrats now outnumbering Republicans by more than 1 million registered voters in the Keystone State.
Specter himself noted that in 2008, roughly 200,000 Republicans had switched their registration to vote in the Democratic primary.
Many of those who reidentified themselves hailed from Philadelphia's suburbs, where the GOP always stood the best chance of making inroads with moderate Jewish voters.
Tracey Specter, who chairs the Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth, and is married to the senator's son, Shanin Specter, wrote in an e-mail: "It was a sad day for Republicans in Pa. when my father-in-law switched parties, especially moderates."
She gave no hint that she plans to leave her own position with the GOP.
"I do believe [his] changing parties is a wake-up call to the Republican Party," wrote Tracey Specter, adding that Jewish Republicans generally favor fiscal restraint, and are less liberal on social issues than Jewish Democrats. "I believe the Republican Party must be open and welcoming of all points of views if we are to begin to reverse the current trend."
Scott Feigelstein, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition's Philadelphia chapter, acknowledged that the chips may be down for Jews in the GOP, but noted that the tables can turn quickly.
"The reports of our demise have been written so many times during the years," said Feigelstein. "There are some very clear issues that sharply define the issues in the party," including Israel and foreign policy.
Feigelstein said that local RJC members have expressed a range of reactions to Specter's shift. Some members, he said, may even continue to support him, depending on who else enters the race.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge are now reportedly mulling a run in the Republican Senate primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey, the conservative candidate whose lead in the polls was a key factor in Specter's decision to defect.
Nationally, the RJC has tried to downplay the significance of Specter's announcement.
Matthew Brooks, who directs the Washington-based operation, disputed the notion that Specter was a Republican Jewish standard-bearer. He asserted that Norm Coleman — who's still fighting to hold on to his Minnesota Senate seat — and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va), the only Republican Jew in the House of Representatives, were better-suited to that role.
Still, Brooks lamented that Specter is leaving the GOP at a crucial time, when it is trying to rebrand itself and broaden its appeal. "Rather than staying and helping to move the party in the direction" he wanted it to go, Brooks said that "he's leaving precisely at the time the party is embarking on an effort to remake the party."
Francine Lipstein, an RJC member and local Specter donor — who belongs to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, as does Specter — said that she has mixed emotions about Specter leaving the party. She said that she and others from the Philadelphia suburbs who have long known and supported him feel angered.
At the same time, she said, Specter had already cast his lot with Democrats by initially expressing support for the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation pending in Congress that would strengthen workers' rights (he later opposed it), and by voting for the $800 billion stimulus package.
"I don't really understand what Arlen stands for," said Lipstein.
Still, she left open the possibility that she might continue to support him. Responding to reports that longtime donors have asked for their contributions back, Lipstein, for one, noted that she didn't plan to do the same.
To underscore the bitterness some feel, one man screamed out, "I want my money back," as the senator spoke with reporters last week at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.
Specter said that he wasn't sure if any contributors had asked for refunds; however, he did pledge to honor such requests.
Michael Livingston, a law professor at Rutgers University-Camden who had challenged U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2) before dropping out last summer, said that Specter's announcement didn't represent a political sea change as much as a "ratification of something that had happened already anyway."
Livingston, an RJC member and blogger (www. pa2010.com), said that he had never been a big fan of Specter because of what he called the senator's lack of ideological consistency. But he did say that losing a member of Specter's stature "reduces the influence of Jews in the Republican Party."
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America who has long been close to Specter, echoed the sentiment of many when he said that it was "a bit disconcerting" to see Specter "switch parties in midstream."
But he sees a silver lining. Klein said that he hoped Specter would now have "more influence on President Obama to ask him to stop pressuring Israel to make one-sided concessions."