Party Switches: From Admirable to Outrageous

Posted August 13, 2004 at 3:20pm

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) called it “cowardly.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) labeled it “perfidy.” Others I’ve encountered have used unprintable language. [IMGCAP(1)]

Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander’s switch to the GOP has aroused strong feelings on both sides of the aisle, but many Democrats, quite understandably, are filled with anger, outrage and bitterness.

Alexander, of course, isn’t the first Member of Congress to switch parties. Almost two dozen Members of the House and Senate have switched parties in the middle of a term, including Senators such as Strom Thurmond (S.C.) in 1974 and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) in 1995, and House Members Ogden Reid (N.Y.) in 1972 and Billy Tauzin (La.) in 1995.

Some Members have even switched twice. Virgil Goode (Va.) did so in 2000 (from Democrat to Independent) and again in 2002 (from Independent to Republican).

But not all switches are created equal, are they? Some are cowardly and perfidious, while others are honorable. So this week, it’s time to look at the best and worst switches.

The Most Honorable Switcher Ever: Phil Gramm (Texas), Democrat to Republican.

Whatever you think of Gramm, he switched the right way. Re-elected as a Democrat in November 1982, he resigned his seat two months later and stood for re-election as a Republican in a February 1983 special election.

In doing so, he acknowledged that his party and his switch might matter to voters, and that he owed his constituents an opportunity to express disapproval with his move. On a scale of 1 (disgusting) to 10 (perfectly honorable), Gramm is a 12.

Democrats, of course, will remember the weeks before Gramm’s resignation, when he apparently passed private information gathered as a Democratic member of the House Budget Committee to House Republicans.

The Pettiest Switcher in History: Rep. Matthew Martinez (Calif.), Democrat to Republican.

Martinez switched to the GOP a little more than four months after he lost his bid for renomination in the March 2000 California Democratic primary to Hilda Solis.

Unlike some party switchers, who jumped parties either for ideological or purely pragmatic reasons, Martinez joined House Republicans out of personal bitterness, believing that House Democrats didn’t do enough to support his bid for a 10th full term.

Martinez started voting with the GOP immediately after his primary defeat, and while his switch technically increased House Republicans’ margin, it had little practical effect. Martinez wasn’t trying to help his constituents, further his personal ambitions or follow principle. He was just sticking his tongue out at his former party. Very mature.

The Most Ignominious Switcher(s) in History: Rodney Alexander, Democrat to Republican, and James Jeffords (Vt.), Republican to Independent (but really Democrat).

Alexander’s switch was so calculatingly deceptive that it has to rank as one of the worst ways to change parties.

In March, Alexander, the subject of party- switch rumors, issued a statement saying that he was “flattered” by GOP efforts to get him to switch parties but he had decided to remain a Democrat.

Two days before the filing deadline, the Congressman filed papers to run for re-election as a Democrat. But minutes before the qualifying period ended 10 days ago, he switched to the Republican Party. Switching parties so late, when potential Republican and Democratic candidates had no time to enter the race, was far from a profile in courage.

Rivaling Alexander for the worst switch is Jeffords, who left the GOP and became a de facto Democrat (technically, he became an Independent, but he cast his lot with Democrats) about six months after the state’s voters had elected him to a third six-year term in 2000.

First elected as a Republican in 1967 to the Vermont state Senate, Jeffords entered Congress, as a Republican, in 1974.

Jeffords had spent years compiling a record as one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress. Everyone knew where he stood on the issues. He could have continued voting as he desired indefinitely (or as long as Vermont voters wanted him in the Senate).

Jeffords’ switch gave Democrats the Senate majority, forcing a change in the body’s leadership, including all committee chairs. So he didn’t only change his own party label; he forced an upheaval in the Senate.

The Most Invisible Party Switcher in History: Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), Democrat to anti-Democrat Democrat.

Miller’s non-switch switch is the strangest pseudo-switch ever. The retiring Senator has switched in everything but name, attending the GOP convention and bashing his own party, er, the Democratic Party, in his book. Senator, if you are going to switch, then switch.

The Most Pathetic Switch in History: Rep. Mike Forbes (N.Y.), Republican to Democrat.

Forbes switched to the Democrats in July 1998 and proceeded to lose in the 2000 Democratic party to a 71-year-old former councilwoman who spent $40,000 on her bid.

Finally, the Silliest Reaction to a Party Switch goes to those Democrats currently pursuing legal action to stop Alexander from running for re-election as a Republican. We know you don’t like what he did. We know you are angry. Fine. Get over it. It’s politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.