Party switchers

/ Source: National Journal

The widely held notion that Democrats are poised to win at least the House is grounded in the premise that 2006 bears an eerie resemblance to 1994, the last time control of the chamber changed hands.

If the analogy holds true, losing the House might be just the beginning of the House Republicans' troubles: The post-1994 political era has demonstrated that a congressional caucus newly relegated to minority status continues hemorrhaging long after Election Day.

That was the bitter, unexpected lesson that Democrats learned in the aftermath of the 1994 upheaval. Within a year, the scent of majority power had enticed five House Democrats and two Senate Democrats to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party. And that wasn't the end of the Democratic Party's bleeding. As the durability of the House GOP's majority became clear, three more Democrats found their way to the Republican Conference between 2000 and 2004, each defection making the party's climb back to power that much steeper.

Ambition and self-preservation
Despite vigorous claims to the contrary, nearly every case of party-switching involved a calculus that apparently had as much to do with ambition and self-preservation as ideology. It's no coincidence that nearly all office-holding converts, either in Congress or at the statehouse level, join a legislative majority rather than a party out of power. And if they aren't joining an existing majority, then they are providing the critical seat that puts a politically ascendant party into the majority.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who joined the GOP the day after the historic 1994 election, is an instructive example. At the time Shelby switched, the national Democratic Party was no asset to Alabama's statewide Democratic candidates. Nor was President Clinton very popular back home in the South. So when the Clinton administration attempted to punish Shelby for his wayward voting habits, it probably wasn't hard for the senator to decide that the time had come to make his move. He had four years to go on his second term, and his seniority was guaranteed by the new GOP majority. Shelby's leap across the aisle was virtually a no-brainer.

In the case of the most recent Democratic defector, Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, the decision seems, again, to have been an entirely rational, if bloodless, choice. Two years after squeaking into office by a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes in 2002, Alexander faced the prospect of running for re-election in a socially conservative district with Sen. John Kerry, a Northeastern liberal, at the top of the ticket.

But Kerry was the least of Alexander's concerns. Although a top-tier GOP challenger had not yet emerged when Alexander switched in August 2004, he already had a black Democratic challenger in a district that is one-third African-American. So, in short, Alexander was looking down the barrel of a career spent out of power, beset by competitive challengers from the right and the left, in a minority party that would likely be a millstone around his neck for as long as he remained in Congress.

By changing his stripes, Alexander got a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee, a degree of protection from competitive opposition, and the satisfaction of knowing that he would never again have to answer for the positions of the House Democratic leadership or the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

Alexander's political instincts proved flawless. In November 2004, running as a Republican, he outdistanced the Democratic nominee by nearly 35 percentage points as President Bush thrashed Kerry in the district, 62 percent to 37 percent.

Jefford's jump
Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont was another lawmaker who had more to gain than to lose by leaving his party. Considering his voting record, Jeffords could have made his switch away from the GOP at almost any time during his congressional career, yet he chose to jump in 2001 -- once it became clear that he would still serve in a majority, with a chairmanship -- confident in the knowledge that Vermont Republicans were an endangered species. Jeffords handed Democrats control of the chamber because he caucuses with them even though he counts himself an independent.

It will be difficult for Republicans to imagine that they have other potential traitors in their midst. That's because congressional party-switching has been an almost exclusively Democratic malady for more than a quarter-century. When the occasional Republican like Jeffords or then-Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire did leave the family, the defector became an independent, never going so far as to formally join the Democratic ranks. (Smith, in fact, returned to the GOP fold in November 1999, less than a year after leaving it for a short-lived presidential bid.)

However, if the Democrats retake the House this November 7, the self-serving calculus used by a generation of Southern politicians in defecting from the Democratic Party may well begin to make sense for nail-biting, blue-state Republicans across the Northeast and in parts of the Midwest as they begin to ponder a future without chairmanships, a future weighed down by the drag of a socially conservative, Southern- and Western-based national party.

Rethinking loyalties
If the past decade is any guide, these Republican lawmakers will ask themselves the value of remaining in a powerless party that doesn't exactly reflect their beliefs and didn't entirely trust them in the first place. They will pore over precinct returns, review the pipeline of potential competitors in both parties, and begin to handicap the 2008 GOP presidential primary field. Then they will begin to entertain -- or solicit -- Democratic offers of retained seniority, choice committee slots, fundraising assistance, and protection from primary election competition if they were to make the switch.

As far-fetched as this scenario might sound, there is a recent precedent. It happened in 1999, when Rep. Michael Forbes of New York became the first and only sitting GOP House member to switch parties since the Nixon presidency.

Forbes would have seemed an unlikely defector when he was elected in Long Island's 1st District as part of the Class of 1994. A protege of then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Forbes served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush and met his future wife at a D'Amato reception. Their wedding ceremony was held in Bob Dole's Senate office. Forbes embraced the GOP's Contract With America while running in 1994 and later voted for all four articles of impeachment against Clinton. But not long afterward, he traded parties, sharply criticizing his former colleagues as angry, mean-spirited extremists.

There's no reason to doubt that Forbes was speaking from the heart; his estrangement from the GOP had been obvious for some time. But his leap to the Democratic side of the aisle was hardly a profile in courage. Although his grip on the Suffolk County-based seat was solid, Forbes made his announcement when the once-mighty Long Island GOP was already in retreat. In 1996, Clinton won Suffolk in a rout; two prominent local officeholders had recently joined the Democratic ranks, and the Suffolk County Republican chairman had been indicted.

Worse still for Forbes, the walls in Congress seemed to be closing in on him. Democrats gained nine seats in the 1996 election, followed by five in 1998, and were in striking distance of regaining their House majority in the next election cycle. D'Amato, Forbes's mentor, had just been defeated for re-election. One month later, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, the speaker-designate for whom Forbes was a top lieutenant, became ensnared in a scandal and resigned.

In July 1999, less than a year after D'Amato and Livingston left office, Forbes made his leap -- but only after a personal visit with Clinton, a guarantee that he could keep his seat on Appropriations, and promises of fundraising assistance and protection from Democratic primary opposition.

Lessons learned?
If House Democrats win a narrow majority this November, or even if they get within a seat or two of taking control, comparable offers will be extended across the aisle. It won't be hard to identify the likely targets -- just look at the roster of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership and circle the Northeastern and Midwestern members.

The courtship process, however, will probably avoid mention of the Forbes precedent. As it turned out, the national Democrats who promised to protect Forbes back home never actually got the local rank and file to buy in. And his jilted former colleagues decided to make an example out of him. In addition to releasing unflattering old campaign commercial outtakes, the National Republican Congressional Committee hit him where it hurt. Evoking the spirit of 1994, they sent fliers to Democratic voters portraying the three-term member of Congress as a conservative extremist. The tactic worked exactly as intended: Forbes failed to survive his only Democratic primary.