Leaping Across the Aisle

Some career decisions we make early on can be reversible.

You can go back to school and get a second degree. You can switch jobs, or take steps to break into a new field. But what about your political party affiliation? In a town like Washington, D.C., can you make a switch from one party to another? Today’s Hill Navigator addresses that question with some tips for the would-be party-jumpers.

As always, Hill Navigator is nonpartisan and believes these tips would work just as well for a D or an R (or an I or G or ...)

Q. The last few years I've worked with Republicans in my home state at the intern level and entry-level positions. I then had some life-changing experiences to where I realized that I absolutely don't share the same values as the Republicans and need to switch parties. I've been on the Hill for about a year as a staff assistant for a moderate Republican. How hard is this switch going to be?

A. Good news. You can make a political party switch — but you can only do it once. You won’t be able to build a résumé going back and forth between parties, but you will be able to make one giant leap across the aisle and stay there. During my time on the Hill, I knew a number of offices where someone had once worked for a different party. It’s not very common, but it happens for a variety of reasons, including the change of heart that you mentioned.

If this is something you’re certain you want to do, here are some guidelines:

Go local.

In some cases, if an incumbent is defeated, his or her staff might have the opportunity to continue with the incoming member. This is more common in district and state offices but is not unheard of in Washington, D.C., particularly in administrative roles that are less focused on ideology.

Evaluate the opportunity.

Get issue-specific.

From your question, it seems that you’re in an entry-level position and want to make the switch but are not sure how. Understandably, any move can be hard, and party-switching is sensitive. Here are some tips on what you can do:

  • Find someone from the opposite party who will help. Pick a person you can confide in, explain your situation and see whether they can help set up informational interviews. Be clear with your reasons and sure of your focus. Defectors can generate extra attention, so you may find yourself in the enviable position of having many people willing to talk to you and help seek out job opportunities.
  • Figure out whom you want to work for. Would you be comfortable with a moderate, or someone at the party extreme? Is there a position you have your eye on, or do you want to stay in your home state? Come up with parameters and your informational interviews will be more effective.
  • Talk to your boss. I realize it would be much easier to jump ship without looking back. But remember that your boss hired you and was the first person to give you the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. Before you leave the office and political party, be upfront about what you’re doing and gracious for the chance to have worked in public service. And you’ll still be working in public service, just from the other side of the aisle.