Party Switchers

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Jim Jeffords, Whose Party Switch Changed Control of the Senate

Last year, there were two party switches in Congress: Republican Justin Amash switched to Independent because he came to support impeachment of Donald Trump, and Democrat Jeff Van Drew switched to Republican because he opposed impeachment. Party switching is more common historically than you might think: President Donald Trump has done so multiple times and even sought the nomination for the Reform Party in 2000. Currently serving Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and John Kennedy of Louisiana at one time held elected office as Democrats. For the purposes of this list of major party switchers, I will not count switches that occurred before the person became politically active, nor will I be counting those who are politically active as this is a historical list. Thus, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean will not be covered here.

Richard F. Pettigrew – I have covered Senator Pettigrew in a previous post, and as one of South Dakota’s first two senators he shifted from Republican to Silver Republican over the party’s embrace of the gold standard. After losing reelection in 1900, he switched to Democrat but by the Wilson Administration, he could be regarded as radical and sympathetic to communism.

Henry Teller – Senator Teller of Colorado was one of the state’s first two senators and he was noted for his independence. Most notably, in 1887 he opposed the Dawes Act, which was an ultimately disastrous effort to integrate American Indians into a capitalist society as it resulted in them losing two-thirds of their land, often due to fraud. However, what got Senator Teller to leave the Republican Party was its policy on silver, which had moved from bimetallism to fully embracing the gold standard in 1896. Unlike many of the Republicans who left for the Silver Republican Party, Teller moved to the Democratic Party in 1903.

George W. Norris – Senator George Norris of Nebraska had long been a prominent progressive voice in the Republican Party and in 1928, 1932, and 1936 he backed the Democrat for office. In that year, he switched to Independent because it was becoming increasingly clear that the Republicans wouldn’t win back a majority soon, and in exchange he got privileges normally afforded to Democrats. By 1942, the voters of Nebraska had lost their enthusiasm for progressive politics and he lost reelection.

Wayne Morse – Elected as a Republican in 1944, Morse was never a great ideological fit for the Republican Party and left in 1952 because of the selection of Richard Nixon as Vice President. For two years, he was an Independent, but ultimately in 1955 he settled on being a Democrat. Morse even made a run for the presidency in 1960 on a platform of liberalism, but John F. Kennedy’s campaign was able to overwhelm his candidacy. He later emerged as a critic of both foreign aid and the Vietnam War, being one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. Morse’s opposition to the Vietnam War didn’t play well at home and he lost reelection in 1968. He sought a comeback in 1974, but his health didn’t hold out and he died during the campaign.

Strom Thurmond – Strom Thurmond as a young man probably never thought he would switch parties. In the 1930s, he was a New Deal Democrat and, indeed, the state of South Carolina was intensely Democratic until the 1950s. In 1954, Thurmond, who had been Governor of South Carolina, was elected to the Senate and right from the get-go he proved a conservative Democrat and he only got more conservative: while from 1955 to 1959, his voting record earned him a 78% score from Americans for Constitutional Action, his record in 1961-62 earned him a 100%. Even before Thurmond switched parties he was highly regarded by many conservatives. He finally did so in 1964, partly out of ideological agreements with Republican nominee Barry Goldwater but also because he anticipated that staying in the Democratic Party would likely bring his career to an end. Switching Republican gained him a new sort of power during the Nixon Administration but this proved the height of his prominence. Yet, he continued to serve in the Senate until his retirement…in 2003!

John Lindsay – When New York City’s John Lindsay was first elected to Congress in 1958, he was an Eisenhower Republican and voted that way until 1962, when he shifted left. By 1965, he was the most liberal Republican in the House and that year he successfully ran for Mayor of New York City. As Mayor, he pursued tax-and-spend policies which ultimately led the city into bankruptcy in 1975 and crime skyrocketed under his tenure, which is widely regarded as disastrous. In 1972, Lindsay switched to Democrat to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, which reminds me a lot of New York City’s Bill de Blasio: an unpopular mayor trying to fail upwards.

Phil Gramm – In 1978, Phil Gramm was elected to Congress from Texas as a Democrat. He had never been a liberal and the policies of Ronald Reagan appealed to him deeply, so in 1981 he wrote and co-sponsored the Reagan Administration’s first budget. This resulted in the Democrats stripping him of his position on the Budget Committee, which he responded to by resigning office in 1983 and running for the seat as a Republican. Gramm believed that his district supported him and not the Democratic Party, a belief that proved correct with his victory. In 1984, with the blessing of the Reagan Administration, he ran for and won election to the Senate and the following year he co-sponsored the Gramm-Hollings-Rudman Act, intended to balance the budget. Gramm attempted to run for president in 1996, but he lacked national support and he retired in 2002.

Jim Jeffords – Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords had for a long time been a prominent liberal Republican and the increasingly conservative nature of the party finally pushed him to switch to Independent in 2001. He proceeded to caucus with the Democrats, giving them a majority in the chamber. This was a move generally well-regarded by the state’s voters and he did not seek reelection after this switch.

Arlen Specter – In 1965, Democrat Arlen Specter wanted to run for Philadelphia District Attorney against his former boss, but his party wouldn’t back him. Republican Senator Hugh Scott saw an opportunity and approached him with a deal: switch parties and the Republican nomination was his. Specter agreed and won the election. In 1980, he succeeded Republican Senator Richard Schweiker and served as a moderate-to-liberal Republican, often to the consternation of conservative voters. In 2004, conservative Representative Pat Toomey challenged him in the primary but survived due to the endorsement of President Bush. In 2009, he switched parties as he was faring poorly in Republican primary polling against conservative Pat Toomey, who was giving it another go. Specter, however, couldn’t hold off his Democratic primary challenger in 2010, Congressman Joe Sestak. Toomey ultimately prevailed in the election.


Ronald Reagan – Ronald Reagan was as a young man an idealistic New Dealer and even joined an organization that would vehemently oppose his presidency: Americans for Democratic Action. In 1948, he campaigned against the Republican Congress and for Truman, condemning the Republican program as inflationary and decrying the curbing of the power of labor unions. However, his experience with Communists in Hollywood combined with his time as GE’s spokesman transformed him ideologically, and by the time Reagan switched parties in 1962, the change was overdue. The thought of him as a candidate for office arose in his “Time for Choosing” speech a week before the 1964 election for Barry Goldwater, and the rest is history.

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