Time To Rethink Party Switches?

Filed in National by on June 2, 2010

It’s very interesting to me to hear the media talk about how much people want moderation and bipartisanship because that isn’t the way that people vote. Our politics have gotten more partisan and not less, which is somewhat a consequence of the shrunken GOP tent. The GOP is down to its base of mainly white Southerners. In the past incumbency has given a huge boost to a candidate’s re-election chances and party switchers have not seen much punishment.

In the 1960s people like Strom Thurmond, Arlen Specter and Ronald Reagan switched from Democrat to Republican. Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole and Trent Lott switched from Democrat to Republican in the 1970s while Phil Gramm and Condoleezza Rice switched in the 1980s. There was another burst of party switching in the 1990s after the Gingrich revolution, the most prominent being Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell. I think most of these party switches could be explained by the changing politics of the South – going from Democrat-dominated to Republican-dominated since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As you can see, most of these party switchers weren’t punished by voters, but the same isn’t true today. Two prominent party switchers have gone down to defeat in this election cycle. Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter was upset by Joe Sestak in the PA-Sen primary and last night Democrat turned Republican Parker Griffith was defeated in the AL-05 Republican primary by Mo Brooks (decisively enough in a 3-way race that no runoff will be needed).

It’s not only party switchers that are being punished. Insufficiently partisan legislators are being punished as well. Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah was defeated at his party’s convention in May. The delegates cited his vote on TARP as the reason. Last night, Rep. Artur Davis was defeated by Ron Sparks for the Democratic nomination for Alabama governor. Davis pursued a move to the right strategy:

“Well, Artur Davis certainly has done a lot of things different in this campaign,” said Lawson Veasey, the chairman of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Jacksonville State University.

“He did not seek the support of the old-line guard, the African-American political standard-bearers.” And that, he continued, was about the only strategy that could have worked for Davis in the long run, one that was obviously rife with risk.

Davis, Veasey said, made the calculated risk early in the campaign hoping it would improve his standing with white voters in the general election on Nov. 2.

Indeed, in his race against Sparks, the state’s agricultural commissioner, Davis essentially ignored institutions of the old guard, the New South Coalition and the domain of Joe Reed, the Alabama Democratic Conference.

Davis, a congressional moderate, also drifted to the right in his voting as his campaign intensified, refusing to support President Barack Obama’s historic health care reform bill to the astonishment of many of the constituents in his majority-black district.

Davis lost his own district and lost the primary by an almost 2:1 margin, 62-38. Other Democrats who positioned themselves on the right of their party have struggled (like Blanche Lincoln) are still in danger of losing their primaries this year. Some Democrats have severely misjudged the nation’s mood. Creigh Deeds guaranteed his own defeat by trying to move right (criticizing health care reform) in the Virginia governor’s race which drove down turnout on the Democratic side.

Where we’ll need to watch is the switch to Independent. Florida Governor Charlie Crist switched from R to I and is trying to run as the de facto Democrat in Florida (he holds a narrow lead). R to I switcher Lincoln Chafee is running for governor in Rhode Island, and is favored to win there as well. Probably the most famous Independent is Joe Lieberman, who went Independent after losing a Democratic primary in 2006. I think this may portend the rise of a 3rd party, a center right party. Conservatives are not very comfortable in the Democratic party right now and moderates aren’t welcome in the Republican party. I think it’s possible we’ll see a lot more Independents, especially if Charlie Crist wins in November.

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Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

Comments (18)

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  1. JustMe says:

    I think what these candidates have in common is naked opportunism. These aren’t people who are making the change based on anything more than keeping their jobs and the voters know it. Spectre knew he wouldn’t win as an R so he switched for no other reason than to stay employed. The voters can see that. To me, anyone who is willing to give up their 45 year affiliation with a political party just to save their job is not someone we need in office.

  2. Griffith is the same. He served a long time in the Alabama state legislature as a Democrat. He switched to save his job.

    I don’t see how Lieberman’s or Crist’s opportunism is that different, though. Lieberman lost the Democratic primary and Crist was on his way to a primary blowout as well.

  3. MJ says:

    If I was living in RI, I would support Chafee. He was right on a lot of issues I was concerned about when he was in the Senate and I think it’s time there was a blacksmith in office.

  4. Chafee is one of the few who has genuine integrity. He didn’t vote for Bush in 2004, and he stood up in his party’s primary even though he was likely to lose. He switched parties only after he lost. Good for him. I like him.

  5. anon says:

    If I was living in RI, I would support Chafee. He was right on a lot of issues I was concerned about

    I get what you are saying, but consider this:

    Chafee (presumably) voted for Bill Frist as Majority Leader. How do you feel abouot Bill Frist’s positions on issues you are concerned about? How do you feel about Chafee putting Frist into a position to control the Senate agenda?

    Chafee was defeated by Whitehouse. Do you really prefer a Republican, even a liberal Republican, over Whitehouse?

  6. MJ says:

    Actually, anon, I don’t concern myself with who my Senator is supporting for majority leader when it’s a one-person contest. I was torn between Chafee and Whitehouse. Yes, Whitehouse helped the Dems take control of the Senate, but Chafee was being ostracized from his party and would have either switched parties or become an independent caususing with the Dems if he had been reelected. He opposes the death penalty and voted against the war in Iraq. I think the only reason he was a Republican was because his father was.

  7. There is nothing wrong with switching parties if the other is clearly a better fit. There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep your job. There is also nothing wrong with people deciding to go with the loyal guy and not the newcomer.

    U. I. as usual misread the political environment. Deeds was already losing badly and healthcare deform was quite unpopular with Democrats. He had nothing to lose. Specter would have lost big to Toomey. He had nothing to lose. Griffith could read his district well enough to know there was only one way forward. If he somehow made it through November, he was an outsider in an increasingly leftward moving party.

    Those areas had moved clearly to the right while the Democrats moved to the left. 60% of the nation favors a repeal of HCR.

    You guys are out of step with voter sentiments on abortion, marriage, and guns. You are out of step with growing government and regulation. Davis was right that the only way he could win in November was to stand up for his beliefs, but Democrats are too rigid to accept that and Republicans have a near lock on the state of AL now.

    Now I completely agree with you that voters are more partisan than in a long time. It is not voting for the person as much as the ideology today on both sides. Most of the pundits are still trying to figure that out. Give U. I. a star for the day.

  8. Deeds was already losing badly and healthcare deform was quite unpopular with Democrats.

    Absolutely wrong about that. Deeds was unpopular with Democrats because he came out against health care and didn’t try to appeal to the Obama coalition in VA.

    Artur Davis lost in Alabama because he voted “no” on health care reform, which was supported by 80% of the party.

    Griffiths stood a better chance running as a Democrat. At least he’d have a nomination + the advantage of incumbency. I’m not sure if that would have been enough to win in that district.

  9. Deeds was losing. Davis ran a smart general election positioning, but Democrats were too parochial to see the forest for the trees. They voted out their best guy and I am not unhappy.

  10. I still think the core of your analysis is spot on. Bipartisanship is a media creation. Most voters are quite partisan when it comes to the things they want. A party switcher must have the zeal of a convert or they have to have done it before taking office. Reagan, Rice and others had done that. The day of the party switcher in office is still viable, but not right before an election. We don’t trust the self serving. That dog don’t hunt.

  11. I think maybe they’re using the term “bipartisan” in a lazy way. I think what people want is action. I think they probably want more open and accountable government.

    The media is also really lazy in examining independents, like they’re one big group. There are right-leaning and left-leaning ones and some are just people who don’t know much about or care much about politics.

  12. David,

    I agree with you about party switching. I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily but Specter and Griffiths just did it for reasons that only had to do with keeping their jobs. Suddenly switching your core beliefs is just not believable in our partisan times.

  13. cassandra m says:

    One of the things that I think lots of people are missing about the mood of Americans towards their government is that people are just plain tired of the massive media circus and self-dealing that is supposed to be a stand-in for actually governing. If you talk to people who consider themselves long-standing centrists, you hear alot about how Congresspeople simply don’t work at governing. They work at maximizing their personal advantages — politically or otherwise. These people understand that there are occasions where compromise is the solution of the day and aren’t especially pleased with politicians who don’t get that, in favor of a TV-perfect bit of outrage and name-calling.

    Bipartisanship is way less of a media creation than partisanship is. Most Americans have some sense that much of the success of American history typically (but not always) required parties to work together to get that success. Perhaps that is an assessment in hindsight, but they aren’t wrong about that. You never get everybody on board, but you did have decent majorities of legislators who did think that they were expected to govern — which isn’t exactly a priority for more legislators than can be healthy.

  14. Exactly Cassandra. Bipartisanship is shorthand for getting things done.

  15. ek says:

    ‘60% of the nation favors a repeal of HCR.’

    R. David, can you provide a link or support that statement in any way? I have been reading just the opposite.


  16. RSmitty says:

    …Bipartisanship is shorthand for getting things done.

    So, that really wasn’t just me speaking inside my own mind over and over again. Glad to see that mentioned ANYwhere, because it’s really not that easy to get people to admit it.

  17. a.price says:

    “R. David, can you provide a link or support that statement in any way? I have been reading just the opposite.”

    he doesn’t need a link. He heard it from Faux News who heard it from the GoP personal polling spin machine, Rasmussen.

    Rasmussen and Faux… providing an acceptable alternate conservative reality for the next 20 years!

  18. Geezer says:

    Once again, David is just flat wrong on the facts:

    “Americans’ nuanced outlook is reflected in some recent polls. For example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found the public tilting against the law 44-38, with 36 percent saying the quality of their health care would get worse, and only 17 percent believing it would improve. Not exactly a vote of confidence.

    But when asked if they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate willing to give the law a chance to work and make changes as needed, or one who would repeal it entirely and start over, respondents picked the one who would give it a chance by 55-42.”

    Please don’t tell David this stuff. From his lips to the GOP candidates’ ears. He should be encouraged to purify his party, to encourage its candidates to run further and further to the right (I don’t intend to show him the 538 analysis that moving to the right costs candidates votes) and to primary any Republican who shows signs of agreeing with Democrats on any issue, ever. Also, please encourage him and his merry band of wingnuts to keep railing against immigrants, illegal or not.