Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (ID-Conn.) endorsement of Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for president earlier this week rattled some of his Democratic colleagues, one of whom said he was “speechless” after his conference mate announced his choice.
“Everyone has the right to make their own decisions,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told Roll Call on Monday. “I wish he hadn’t done what he did, but he’s a friend of mine.”
Despite Lieberman’s defection, Congressional insiders believe there is little chance that the Independent Senator who caucuses with Democrats will cast his lot with the other side anytime soon.
“Joe has voted with us on most domestic issues,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
But they don’t expect him to switch back and become a Democrat, either.
First off, experts agree that constituents frequently hate party switching. Ex-Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.) lost his job to an unknown librarian in the 2000 Democratic primary a year after leaving the GOP.
If he became a Republican or formally rejoined the Democrats, Lieberman would lose his considerable leverage with both parties, nixing his ability to let his political juices flow — and attract the considerable media attention he gets when he defies party leaders on both sides.
But even more, House and Senate experts say that party switching is a rarity in Congress’ 200-plus year history, a trend that is obscured for many modern-day Congress watchers by the rash of aisle crossing that occurred in the mid and late 1990s in the wake of the Republican takeover of both chambers.
Congressional historians claim that less than 2 percent of both chambers’ memberships have switched parties since the 1st Congress was gaveled open on March 4, 1789. And with partisanship in Congress possibly running at an all-time high, the chances of a party switch today almost are nonexistent.
“In an American Congress, it’s very rare — especially during times of stable, party competition,” said Tim Nokken, a political science professor at Texas Tech who specializes in party switching. “Even [after 1994] it was only five Members of the House and two in the Senate.”
“And it’s probably a good thing we don’t have a lot of party switching,” Nokken continued. “Because as weak and unguided as we see our parties, they are significant enough to keep their membership pretty steady and politicians don’t completely flip-flop from one party to the next.”
Between November 1994 and December 1995, six Southern Democrats and one moderate Colorado Senator joined the new Republican House and Senate majorities on their trip out of the political wilderness: Rep. Nathan Deal (Ga.), Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), then-Reps. James Hayes (La.), Mike Parker (Miss.), Billy Tauzin (La.) and Greg Laughlin (Texas) and then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.).
Since then, fellow Southern Reps. Rodney Alexander (La.), Ralph Hall (Texas) and Virgil Goode (Va.) have switched parties. One-time Independent Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.) also became a registered Republican in 1997, retired Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) went the other way and ex-New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith switched twice between Republican and Independent during a four-month period eight years ago.
Smith settled for good with the GOP in November 1999 — but he wound up losing the Republican primary when he ran for
re-election in 2002.