Party switching comes with political risks
By Thom Patterson
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For more than a century, U.S. senators and representatives have been daring to leave their political parties, oftentimes putting themselves at risk of being defeated for re-election.
Often the switcher faces the full financial and strategic force of his or her abandoned political party during the re-election campaign and falls prey to a party scorned.
Rep. Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana switched from Democrat to Republican in 1995 and then failed to win a runoff primary in the following campaign.
Switching can hurt former Republicans, too. In New York, three-term Rep. Michael Forbes jumped from the GOP to the Democrats in 1999. He said he had become disillusioned by the party. The following year, Forbes lost a hotly contested primary by just 35 votes.
In fact, nine current members of Congress have switched parties while serving in office, five in the Senate, four in the House. Seven of them moved from the Democrats to the Republicans and two former Republicans declared themselves Independents. One of those Independents later switched back to the GOP.
Many of the former Democrats were conservatives who saw their party becoming less conservative, including Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. In 1994 Shelby, after serving as a Democratic senator for seven years, announced his move to the GOP, saying he was discouraged by disappearing conservatives within the Democratic fold.
"I am changing parties to a party of hope for America, not a party of dependency," Shelby told The Associated Press on the day he defected. Shelby went on to easily win re-election in 1998.
Similar reasons were cited by another current member of Congress, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, who abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republicans in 1995.
"We have learned over the course of the last year that there is no role for conservatives within the Democratic Party," Tauzin complained at a news conference the day after he switched. "I decided to go with a party that respects my ideas." Tauzin is now serving his eleventh term of office, running unchallenged in his last election.
Also in 1995, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado moved from the Democrats to the Republicans after the Senate defeat of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, which he favored. "I have always been considered a moderate," he said, "much to the consternation of the Democratic Party."
Unlike other switchers, Campbell's defection was not met with political pitfalls during his bid for re-election. He turned back a more conservative challenger during the 1998 primary, defeating him 70 percent to 30 percent. In the fall, Campbell easily won re-election.
In 1999 GOP Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire abruptly quit the Republican Party and announced his candidacy for president as an Independent. "I want my party to stand for something," he said, complaining that his colleagues failed to toe the party platform line on issues such as international policy, gun control and abortion.
When his campaign failed to gain popularity or momentum months later, Smith ended his presidential bid and eventually was allowed to return to the GOP. Some political analysts say Smith's flip-flop has made him vulnerable and may cost him his Senate seat in 2002.
Another congressional party switch stands out as unique. In 2000, an 18-year veteran of Congress switched parties as an apparent parting shot by a "disappointed" lame duck.
Rep. Matthew Martinez of California switched from the Democrats to the GOP after losing his re-election bid in the Democratic primary.
Martinez denied that the switch was because of his primary loss and said he was "disappointed" but not "bitter" toward his former Democratic colleagues for failing to support repeals of the so-called marriage penalty and estate taxes.
He also said he was upset with then-Vice President Al Gore for failing to honor his promise to endorse Martinez.
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