IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Party-switcher in Ala. faces 'flip-flopper' label

You would think U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith's decision to switch to the Republican Party would endear him with the GOP. Instead, he finds himself in a three-way primary, being branded a "flip-flopper," and continues to battle lingering hard feelings over his win two years ago that left the coveted seat in Democratic control.
Parker Griffith, John Boehner
Rep. Parker Griffith, left, answers questions from the press during a conference where House Republican leader John Boehner joined him, in Huntsville, Ala.Michael Mercier / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

You would think U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith's decision to switch to the Republican Party would endear him with the GOP. Instead, he finds himself in a three-way primary, being branded a "flip-flopper," and continues to battle lingering hard feelings over his win two years ago that left the coveted seat in Democratic control.

Next Tuesday's primary will be the first real test as to whether the party switch bothers voters as much as it has seemed to rankle north Alabama GOP leaders who doubt his motives for switching parties.

"Asking voters to send me back as a Republican is not a hard ask for me," Griffith said. "Our district is very independent. The people are very well educated and are independent thinkers. It's an independent and Republican leaning district."

When the 67-year-old physician, seeking his second term, left the Democratic Party last December, he said he was doing so because of concern about the Obama administration's health care overhaul. But critics — both Democrats and Republicans — said it had less to do with philosophy and more to do with political survival in an increasingly Republican-leaning district.

"He announced the party switch in December. That's a very brief window to convince die-hard Republicans that he was really a Republican," said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University.

Six months after Griffith joined their ranks, he has not been embraced by local GOP leaders — one county committee passed a resolution asking him not to use any campaign money he received when he was a Democrat, while another endorsed his opponents but not him and urged the state's congressional delegation to stay neutral.

The tough race has forced Griffith to spend $255,000 of his own money and raise some $2.8 million in the campaign — about $1 million more than he spent in the 2008 campaign.

Griffith won his first term in 2008, succeeding nine-term Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer, who retired. Republicans had eyed the open seat as their best chance of electing the district's first-ever Republican but were denied by Griffith in a narrow race in which he bested Wayne Parker by less than 10,000 votes.

"That congressional race was a bloodbath. A lot of hard-core Republicans worked hard for Wayne Parker," Brown said. "When Republican activists talk to me, I sense they haven't accepted Parker Griffith."

The 5th District stretches across a north Alabama area dominated by high-tech industries, including NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army's missile command at Redstone Arsenal. While the district has traditionally sent Democrats to Congress, it has voted for Republicans in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections.

Griffith faces re-election at a time when voters are showing displeasure with incumbents, including one prominent veteran who switched parties.

The defeat of former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary "will send a little bit of a chill through the Griffith campaign," said political scientist David Lanoue of the University of Alabama.

Party switchers in Alabama — mostly going from Democratic to Republican ranks — have in the past generally faired better than Specter. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby notably switched to the Republican Party after the GOP won control of the Senate in 1994 and has continued to win by large margins.

Griffith is under a stiff challenge in the GOP primary chiefly from Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks, who is spreading a similar message to the one used by U.S. Rep. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., to defeat Specter.

"America needs leadership and not flip-floppers," Brooks said.

A third candidate in the GOP field, Madison restaurant owner Les Phillip, is seeking to become the first black to represent the district, which is nearly 80 percent white.

Homebuilder Nate Matthews, 30, said he doesn't think the switch will hurt Griffith. He said people in the rural parts of the district like Griffith, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

"They think he's for the farmers and they don't care if he's a Republican or a Democrat. They think he'll stand up for them," Matthews said.

But 71-year-old Buddy Burkett, a retired contractor, said Griffith's party switch "bothers me and everybody I know feels that way."

In Huntsville's Five Points community, 72-year-old barber Floyd Hardin said Griffith stirred up some emotion when he first switched parties in December, but feelings have mostly calmed down.

"I don't think that's going to hurt him too bad. When it first came out everybody who came in here was talking about it," Hardin said on the porch of his barber shop. "But now I hardly hear anybody say anything about it."

The Democratic field, which is drawing less attention leading up to the June 1 vote, is made up of three Huntsville lawyers — Mitchell Howie, Steve Raby and Taze Shepard — and David Maker, a scientist who works on missile defense for a private contractor in Huntsville.

The state Republican Party hasn't taken a position in the 5th District race and won't endorse any of the candidates. But Chairman Mike Hubbard said the state GOP considers Griffith a Republican in good standing, and noted that he has voted with Republicans in Congress "even before he switched parties."

Griffith, who had been a member of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, said his medical expertise is needed in Congress, particularly if Republicans win a majority and attempt to repeal health care reform.

Griffith said he has not felt any hostility from Republicans, and he noted that he has been endorsed by Alabama's four other Republican congressmen.

"They know I have voted as a Republican," Griffith said.

Brooks, who has spoken at several tea party events, said Griffith should pay attention to the mood of voters across the country.

"America is looking for leadership grounded in sound ideological beliefs," Brooks said.

The third Republican candidate, Phillip, said he has spent a year traveling across the district and the main issue for most voters is not whether Griffith is a Democrat or a Republican, but whether they will have jobs.

"The folks I talk to don't want to stay in public housing. They want a job," said Phillip.