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Posted at 11:23 AM ET, 12/16/2010

Party-switchers beware: it ain't easy

By Aaron Blake

Texas state Rep. Aaron Pena's switch from Democrat to Republican this week made him the 20th state legislator since the midterm elections to make the switch to the GOP.

The switches have largely been centered in the south, but switchers have also made the leap in Maine and South Dakota (a full list here, courtesy of GOPAC).

The party-switching trend hasn't taken hold yet in Congress, but there's still time. After all, five Democrats made the leap in the year after the 1994 Republican Revolution, and there are still a good number of conservative Democrats left in the House, even after many of them lost this year.

(Check out this Roll Call report from October, which names Reps. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina as potential GOP targets.)

The number of switches signify the GOP's resurgence across the country and the ever-present desire from (some) politicians to be on the winning team.

History suggests, however, that today's winners are tomorrow's losers, as recent party-switchers (think Sen. Arlen Specter, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Parker Griffith) have an awful history of winning their next elections.

To wit:

* Of the last 12 party-switchers in the House, only half won their next elections. Four -- including Griffith -- went on to lose their new party's nomination, and two went on to lose badly in statewide primaries.

* Of the last four party-switchers in the Senate, only Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) won reelection. Specter and Sen. Bob Smith (N.H.) went on to lose primaries; one -- Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) -- retired.

* Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy switched from Democrat to Republican in order to run for governor of New York this year, at the urging of the state GOP chairman. Levy didn't even qualify for the primary ballot.

* Louisiana state Treasurer John Kennedy switched from Democrat to Republican in order to run against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as a top GOP recruit in 2008, but he lost.

All things considered, winning office after switching parties is little better than a 50-50 proposition these days -- much worse odds than a normal incumbent running for reelection.

The problem with party-switching is twofold: the party you leave takes it personal affront and does everything it can to beat you AND the party you join is skeptical about your real motives with doubts lingering about whether you are a wolf in sheep's clothing (Demon sheep reference!)

A good example of the dangers inherent in making the switch is former Rep. Michael Forbes. In 1999, he switched from Republican to Democrat.

In the 2000 campaign -- Forbes' first as a Democrat -- the National Republican Congressional Committee sent direct mail reminding Democratic primary voters of his opposition to abortion and gun control provisions. Forbes narrowly lost the primary to a little known, 71-year-old librarian who lost the seat for Democrats in the fall.

Even when your old party doesn't work aggressively against you, it's tough to convince your new base that you are really on the same page as them. Look at Griffith, who took less than 33 percent in the GOP primary this year after his party switch.

Griffith said after the primary that switching parties was the right thing for him personally, even if it turned out to be the wrong move politically. It's not clear that he would have survived this election anyways considering that many members much like him -- conservative Democrats in Republican-leaning districts -- lost on Election Day. But, it's hard to argue that his party switch -- less than a year after he first took office -- did anything but hurt him in the eyes of voters.

Party-switching -- unless done right as Texas' Phil Gramm did in the 1980s when he switched to the GOP, resigned his House seat and ran (and won) a special election -- are a very dangerous proposition. They reek of opportunism and remind many voters of everything they hate about politics.

The lesson? The political grass is rarely greener on the other side -- of the aisle.

By Aaron Blake  | December 16, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party, Republican Party  
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