HARRISBURG - It wasn't that long ago when Pennsylvania was considered among the most Republican of states.

The state GOP had it all: The governor's mansion, control of both chambers of the legislature, the majority of the state delegation to the U.S. House, and both seats in the U.S. Senate.

That was the political scene for much of the 1990s. The political picture today is nearly reversed - and it only worsened for the GOP yesterday with Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat.

Specter's move is a major defection for a state Republican Party that has been bleeding voters while clinging to the notion that conservative ideology will bring about victory, analysts said.

And it means that for the first time since the 1940s, both U.S. senators from Pennsylvania will be Democrats.

"This puts the blue icing on the cake," said Christopher Borick, a politics professor at Muhlenberg College. "If there are dark ages for a political party, then Republicans in Pennsylvania are in it right now."

He and others said yesterday that the party now needed to take a hard look at how it could bring back its former voters and attract new ones.

Although not always in line with Republican ideology, Specter, nonetheless, was one of the few remaining marquee names for the state party.

His worth came from his decades in office, in which he amassed a track record of securing billions in federal funding for the state.

Politically for the party, he also represented a moderate voice in a state where voters have largely shunned strident conservative voices.

'Be inclusive'

Bob Asher, a Republican national committeeman for Pennsylvania, said Specter epitomized the GOP's need to focus less on ideological extremes and more on appealing to a wide array of voters.

"We have to reach out to both liberals, moderates and conservatives," Asher said. "We've got to be inclusive, not exclusive."

Analysts agreed, pointing to recent voter trends showing GOP voters in the state having migrated in droves to the Democratic Party - much of that driven by dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush.

As a party, the state GOP has historically done best with moderate candidates, including Specter and former Gov. Tom Ridge.

But those moderates are now beginning to feel that they no longer have a home in the party - and the Republican voters who supported them are switching their party registrations, political analysts said yesterday.

Specter's switch is "emblematic of the disintegration of the moderate wing with the state Republican Party," said G. Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.

Mike Young, a former Pennsylvania State University professor who has tracked state politics for three decades, called Keystone State Republicans "a party at a crossroads."

Party leaders have to figure out whether the GOP is going to continue to push conservative candidates. Such a move, he said, is viewed by many "as a suicidal path."

"What it [the Republican Party] does next will likely determine if it will move toward returning to its former power and stature or whether it may be on its way to becoming a permanent minority party unable to win statewide," Young said.


In announcing his switch yesterday, Specter echoed that sentiment, saying he believed the party was moving too far to the right.

Some state party leaders vilified Specter yesterday for his decision.

State Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason went as far as to call on Specter to apologize to "every Republican who has supported him over the last three decades" and to return political contributions he has received in recent months.

"It is apparent that he chose to act in his own self-interest and put his political ambitions first," Gleason said.

Other top Republicans downplayed the criticism that Specter's switch was an act of betrayal.

Renee Amoore, deputy chairwoman of the state party, acknowledged that Specter's switch was a "big blow," but said, "Now we have to stand back up and do what we have to do to keep that seat in our hands."

Other party insiders privately said it would be tough to beat a Democratic Specter in the general election unless the GOP managed to lure a moderate to run against him.

And the state party wants to devote time, money and resources next year to the governor's race, believing that is its next big opportunity to seize back power.

Among the likely candidates for governor is Attorney General Tom Corbett, who now is the only Republican officeholder elected statewide other than appellate judges.

On that front, there is good news ahead for the GOP, if history is any indication.

Since World War II, the two parties have flipped control of the governor's office in every election when there was not an incumbent.

"The good part?" quipped Borick of Muhlenberg College. "For Republicans in this state, there is almost nowhere to go but up."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.