ATLANTA — Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith’s surprise switch of parties on Tuesday shows how quickly electoral dynamics are shifting under the weight of massive social and economic policy gambits in Washington.
In fact, Mr. Griffith’s defection could put pressure on other conservative and even moderate Democrats, especially in the Deep South, to jump ship to save their seats. They’ve been encountering backlash from the public against a Democrat-controlled progressive agenda in Washington.
Griffith took over the seat of retiring congressman Robert “Bud” Cramer (D) last year. Now, the freshman lawmaker is angry about being marginalized in the Democratic power structure. An oncologist, Griffith voted against healthcare reform, as well as against the stimulus package and cap-and-trade legislation.
As Democrats reach for victory on big legislation along party lines, that is exposing their flank in moderate and conservative districts. Griffith’s decision to switch parties indicates a pragmatic approach to elections next year, and it shows how the tarnished Republican brand may be regaining some of its gloss.
“This has to be a calculation that it’s going to be easier for a congressman to have a career as a Republican than a Democrat, even if it means joining the minority party, [and] that really is quite astonishing,” says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics.” “The result is you might see more changes or challenges within the Deep South from some of these districts where Democrats think it’s easier to win election as a Republican.”
Freshman Rep. Bobby Bright (D) of Alabama and Rep. Travis Childers (D) of Mississippi, who took office last year, are other possible party defectors, Professor Black says. They have voting records similar to Griffith’s, represent similarly conservative districts, and are likely to encounter similar sentiments from voters.
Griffith’s decision comes during a slide in President Obama’s popularity, especially among white voters. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 65 percent of white voters disapprove of Mr. Obama, versus 34 percent who approve. That 31-point differential is probably even greater in Griffith’s district, which handily voted for John McCain last year in the presidential election, Black says.
Alabama Republicans hailed Griffith’s decision, drawing parallels to the party switch by Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander, who became a Republican about six years ago.
“[Griffith] just could not stomach what the Democrats are doing any longer,” Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, told Fox News.
Griffith’s move means that in the next election, the seat could be contested by a more conservative challenger, some Republicans say. But for now, Griffith is likely to be a favorite for the Republican nomination in the race in the northern Alabama sand hills.
“This party switch signals Griffith’s nervousness, but it doesn’t signal that his incumbency is safe,” writes blogger Andrew Roth at the Club for Growth, a free-market-focused organization in Washington.
According to MSNBC’s “First Read,” a political blog, Democrats are hardly surprised by Griffith’s move, given his voting record and given that he had once asked people to not call him a Democrat, but simply a “Blue Dog.”
Yet Democrats argue that Griffith’s switch pales in comparison with Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection from the Republican Party, which helped give the Democratic caucus its current 60-vote supermajority.
For tradition-bound Southerners, change may simply be happening too fast in Washington. But it’s also possible that Griffith’s frustrations with the direction of the Democratic Party are shared beyond Dixie, Black says.
“The Democrats have gone too far, gone way too liberal, changing one-sixth of the whole economy [with proposed healthcare reform],” says Black. “This is really big social change.”