How Not To Switch Parties

Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith makes all the wrong moves.

Rep. Parker Griffith

Switching political parties is never easy: Former allies no longer trust you, while newfound allies may not yet. And there’s a decent chance the switch will be for naught—about one-third of congressional party switchers don’t get re-elected.

But some switchers botch the job rather dramatically. Republicans initially celebrated the announcement in December that Rep. Parker Griffith, Democrat from Alabama, was switching parties. Democrats said good riddance, noting that Griffith had often voted against the caucus since his election in 2008. But since then, Griffith’s transition hasn’t been particularly smooth. Griffith appears to have broken some of the iron laws of party-switching.

Make sure your new party wants you. Assorted national Republicans have welcomed Griffith to their side. And members of Alabama’s Republican delegation have endorsed him. But the national party itself has yet to throw its weight behind Griffith, who now faces two primary challengers, one of whom met with the National Republican Congressional Committee early on. On the local level, skepticism abounds. Last week, the Madison County Republican Party approved a resolution opposing Griffith. The Limestone County Republican Executive Committee then voted to admonish him for supporting Democratic principles and to prevent him from spending money raised from Democrats. (Griffith says the money he received for the 2008 cycle is gone anyway.) “He was aware there would be criticism,” a spokeswoman for Griffith says.

If not, make sure the activists support you. Tea Party activists in Alabama have been especially critical of Griffith. Sure, they say, he voted against cap-and-trade, the stimulus package, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. * But he also voted for spending and earmarks, for example, by declining to oppose reductions in the stimulus.

Make sure the coast is clear. Party-switching often attracts opposition. (See Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania challenging Arlen Specter from the left.) But in Griffith’s case, the opposition was already there. Even before he switched sides, two conservative Republicans—a county commissioner and a Tea Party activist—had announced their candidacies. Griffith may have better funding and name recognition, but his opponents seem determined to change that. Previously, they had been attacking Griffith as a tax-friendly, pork-obsessed Nancy Pelosi Democrat. Now they can add opportunist to the list. Speaking of which:

Make sure your switch looks ideological, not opportunistic. It’s one thing to argue that your party has drifted away from its ideals over many years, as Specter did when he joined the Democrats. It’s another to claim it’s done so over 12 months. Griffith was a Democrat in 2008. What changed between then and the end of 2009? (Out of control spending, he says.) It has also been revealed that Griffith commissioned a poll right before switching parties—suggesting motivations other than ideological frustration—and then tried to deny it. Griffith’s spokeswoman describes the switch as “a feeling of freedom. He no longer had to protect or defend a party that did not consider the needs or the best interest of the people in his district.”

Reach out to important interest groups. Griffith’s switch may have cheered national Republicans, but both the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition have criticized him. Club for Growth called his voting record “far from conservative,” while the pro-life group’s president said that “people just don’t like the guy.” Since then, he has signed onto the Club for Growth’s pledge to try to repeal health care reform if it passes, and he spoke at the recent March for Life Rally in Washington, D.C.

Pull down past attack ads. Everything survives on the Internet. But if you’re switching parties, the least you can do is ask your new party to pull down any old spots attacking you. The National Republican Congressional Committee (which declined to comment for this piece) did just that for Griffith. But two spots survive. One portrays Griffith as soft on terrorism. Another ad accuses Griffith, a doctor, of “warehousing” cancer patients—keeping them sick in order to reap a profit. Perhaps Democrats can save some money and recycle those.

Make sure you don’t lose your committee seats. When he switched parties, Griffith predicted that Democrats wouldn’t be “small and punitive” by taking away his committee assignments. He was wrong. Pelosi immediately stripped Griffith of his key posts on two House committees: science and technology, and transportation and infrastructure. Those seats have been essential in getting defense and aerospace contracts for Alabama’s 5th District. (His district alone pulled in $6.8 billion in 2008.) Griffith’s switch may not jeopardize those projects immediately, but it does mean the district won’t have someone pushing for them down the road. (That is, unless he gets reassigned to the same committees. “An announcement will be made soon,” says a spokeswoman.)

None of this is to suggest that party-switching should be simple. Even the smoothest transitions—like those of Sens. Jim Webb or Richard Shelby—leave scars. This year, the obstacles are especially daunting. Anti-incumbent sentiment means Griffith would likely have faced strong opposition whether he switched parties or not. And a growing Tea Party movement and a fracturing GOP mean that neither side is especially safe for moderates. Even if Griffith wins the primary, he could well see a Doug Hoffman-style third-party challenge.

Still, there are some fundamental rules that party switchers should follow. Griffith seems to have lost the manual.

Correction, Jan. 26, 2010: This article originally misspelled Lilly Ledbetter’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)