When U.S. Rep. Phil Gramm from Texas made headlines in the early 1980s by switching parties from Democrat to Republican, he converted that into three terms in the U.S. Senate, presidential contender status, and national stardom.
A number of Democrats and several Republicans have tried to be the next Phil Gramm, or at least lengthen their political career. U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas tried to be the latest. He switched from the Democrats to the Republicans about a decade ago. But there was Rep. Hall, favored slightly for another term, losing his bid for renomination to a much younger Tea Party candidate.
Are congressional party switchers more like Phil Gramm, going on to fame and glory? Or do they turn out like Ralph Hall, a footnote in history? Research from the Southern Political Report provides the answer.
Since 1980, seven congressional party switchers have done well. They include Gramm; Rep. Bob Stump (Arizona), who won another ten terms; Sen. Richard Shelby (Alabama) who is still in the U.S. Senate; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colorado), who got another term; Rep. Billy Tauzin (Louisiana), who won reelection four more times; Nathan Deal (Georgia) who was able to win several more terms, and is now the Peach State’s governor; and Rep. Rodney Alexander, who stuck around another nine years before retiring.
For others, it did not go so well. Rep. Eugene Atkinson (Pennsylvania) was hammered in his reelection bid by more than 20 points. Rep. Bill Grant (Florida) was blasted by Pete Peterson for his party switching antics. Rep. Tommy F. Robinson (Arkansas) was crushed in his gubernatorial bid. Rep. Jimmy Hayes (Louisiana) also came up short, losing a Senate primary. Texas Rep. Greg Laughlin (Texas) was downed by Ron Paul after switching parties. Rep. Mike Parker (Mississippi) won another term, and then lost his race for the state’s governor position. Rep. Michael Forbes (New York) jumped from the Republicans to the Democrats, than lost in the primary. Sen. Bob Smith (New Hampshire) found that leaving the Republicans for an independent status cost him a renomination bid for the Senate. Rep. Virgil Goode (Virginia) moved from Democrat to Independent to Republican, only to lose his seat six years later.
In 2009, GOP Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties from the Republicans to the Democrats in Pennsylvania, only to lose to Democrat Rep. Joe Sestak a year later. Similarly, Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith moved from the Democratic column to the Republican column, only to lose his seat to primary challenger Mo Brooks in Alabama. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont switched parties, but did not run for another term.
So in a little more than a third of all cases, a party switcher has gone on to find electoral success. In more than 60 percent of all cases, the party switcher has experienced electoral defeat. Rep. Hall may have thought he was prolonging his political career, but Texas conservatives considered him an insufficient Republican. Like others before him, Hall found the new party to be no more fertile ground than the old one.
Yet Griffith is seeking to make history. He switched back to the Democrats and is running for Governor. We’ll see how well a party switcher who switches back fares in the June primary.