Yes, it happened almost twenty years ago, with the controversial and sharply acrimonious Anita Hill hearings beginning October 11, 1991, but the memories of many Pennsylvania feminists along with other Democratic Party activists are long.
It was one thing for President Obama and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to back Senator Arlon Specter for reelection after he switched parties and became a Democrat. It was an entirely different matter for the state's progressive activists to accept their recommendation, as evidenced by his defeat and the uphill and ultimately decisive victory of Congressman Joe Sestak.
Specter prior to his career in elective politics was a Philadelphia prosecutor. He used his adversarial interrogation skills against Anita Hill as she offered testimony into the Senate hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
The tactics used by Specter and Republican pro-Thomas advocate Orrin Hatch were deemed so odious by Senator Ted Kennedy that near their end he charged in a tone laced with bitter emotion that the "treatment of Ms. Hill was disgraceful." When Hatch chimed in a quick objection, Kennedy repeated, "Yes, the treatment was disgraceful."
Progressive activists have a related reason to oppose Specter in addition to the treatment of Hill during the tense hearings. With Thomas' confirmation, for which Specter strove mightily, George W. Bush's 2000 selection for the presidency was secured.
In the all-crucial Bush vs. Gore U.S. Supreme Court Case it was Antonin Scalia along with fellow Federalist Society ideological soul mate Clarence Thomas who cast the crucial deciding votes in the 5-4 decision that ended recount efforts and handed the presidency to Bush.
In Specter's next re-election bid following the Thomas Hearings he drew a strongly committed female activist in the general election. Her distaste for what he had done to Anita Hill sharpened her antagonism for Specter to the point where she refused to shake his hand before a televised debate between the senatorial candidates.
The savage treatment of Hill and continuing propaganda efforts to vilify her prompted one of the most fascinating mea culpa books and a corresponding change of philosophy by David Brock. As a then neo-conservative activist Brock wrote the bestseller right wing hit piece "The Real Anita Hill."
He later sought to correct this and other damage rendered to the progressive cause, which he had earlier abandoned after being a college booster of Senator Robert Kennedy, in a book called "Blinded by the Right," in which he accused himself of being "a witting cog in the Republican sleaze machine."
Perhaps the most stirring revelation in an apologia relating many was his admission that the disclosure made by Hill in testimony that Thomas regularly rented pornographic films and discussed them in his office in front of her. Brock confirmed this by relating details he learned from talking to the woman at the store who waited on Thomas.
There is a distinct difference between Senator Specter being able to win general elections even after the Anita Hill incident angered progressives, particularly women. He managed to win general elections after obtaining the Republican Party nomination.
With Specter's switch to the Democrats in a move he correctly saw as the only way to salvage his seat since he was losing overwhelmingly among Republican voters, this meant that the people who were the most angry at Specter would hold a decisive influence he had never previously encountered.
Students of politics know something else. Strongly committed activists are far more likely to show up at the polls on election day. They also are known for exercising strength beyond their voting numbers by being active in political action groups as well as socially active in professional and community groups.
Do you suppose that many of those women so enraged at Specter for his inquisitorial tactics against Anita Hill, along with many others enraged over his confirmation efforts on behalf of Clarence Thomas, were working as grassroots activists in the Joe Sestak campaign?