It’s My Party and I’ll Switch If I Want To


Rumor has it that three members of Congress (Democrat senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, as well as Republican senator Olympia Snow) are at least thinking about switching parties. The results of past such moves are definitely mixed.

According to Congress.org:

The biggest reason that people speculate about lawmakers switching parties is that it might help them get re-elected. (Manchin, Nelson and Snowe are up in 2012.)

But will it? We took a look at some recent lawmakers who switched parties to see what happened next.

Failures

The government’s most recent party switcher is Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA). He spent almost 30 years as a Republican and switched to the Democrats in 2009, at least in part because he thought he had a better chance of winning reelection.

That logic turned out to be highly flawed: Specter didn’t even make it to the November general election, as he lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak.

A couple of months later, Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL) suffered a similar fate. Griffith was elected as a Democrat in 2008, switched parties just a year after joining Congress, and lost the Republican Party primary in Alabama’s fifth district by nearly 25 points.

And then there’s Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist was elected as a Republican in 2006 and decided to run for Senate this year, but when it appeared he was close to losing the Republican primary to Marco Rubio, he dropped out of the party and ran as an independent.

Rubio won the general election by 20 points anyway.

Successes

In contrast to those three, a handful of politicians have successfully made the switch in recent years.

Most prominent among them is Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, who was elected to the Senate in 1986 as a Democrat. He traded teams and joined the Republican Party in 1994 as part of the Newt-Gingrich-orchestrated wave election, and he has cruised to reelection three times since, including this year.

Shelby isn’t the only one to have turned on his original party and lived to tell about it.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) is the oldest man in Congress—he was first elected in 1980—and always considered himself a conservative Democrat.

Hall even helped found the Blue Dog Coalition, the fiscally conservative group of Democrats that lost two dozen seats in last week’s midterms.

But Hall has been able to hold onto his since his switch to the Republican Party in 2004, and it looks like he can serve until he’s ready to retire: He won 73 percent of the votes last week.

And the rest

There are also several recent examples of Congressmen who switched parties with limited aims.

Former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) served 12 years as a Republican, then left the party to become an independent and caucus with Democrats in 2001. He never sought reelection, so it’s hard to draw any particular lesson.

The experience of Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) is similar to Jeffords’.

Campbell was elected as a Democrat in 1992, changed parties three years into his term, won reelection in 1998 and retired in 2004, so the switch didn’t appear to do any harm. 

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