Switching Parties as a Survival Strategy – It Can Work!

The latest Senate news, aside from Raphael Warnock winning reelection, is that Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona switched from Democrat to Independent. I see the rationales for this move as threefold: 1. Sinema doesn’t have to face a difficult Democratic primary; 2. She gains more leverage in the Senate; and 3. Sinema can shift her record moderately to the right or at minimum not shift her record left. She is betting that Arizona likes her more than the Democratic Party, and her judgment may turn out to be sound. Some past examples of switching parties to save your career, even if temporarily, include:

Harry F. Byrd Jr.


Harry F. Byrd Jr. was elected to the Senate in 1965 to succeed his father, who was terminally ill with brain cancer. However, in 1966, the Byrd Machine collapsed with the elder Byrd’s death and the defeats of some significant figures in the Democratic primaries like Senator Willis Robertson and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith, the latter being defeated by Delegate George Rawlings. Although Rawlings had failed to win Smith’s seat in the general election, he set his sights on Byrd Jr. in 1970.


Byrd read the writing on the wall and also didn’t want to have to endorse whoever the Democrats chose to run in 1972 (a smart move in retrospect given that it would be George McGovern) and thus declined to run for the Democratic nomination, instead having decided to run for reelection as an Independent. It turned out that Byrd was more popular than the Democratic Party in Virginia at the time and won reelection with over 53% of the vote. Rawlings only got about 31% while poor Republican Ray Garland only got about 15%, despite having the backing of Governor A. Linwood Holton. Many Republicans decided to cast their votes for Byrd, and be ensured that a conservative would be senator. He would win reelection once more in 1976 against the Democratic nominee, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, by almost 20 points. In 1982, Byrd chose not to run again and lived for 31 more years, dying at the age of 98.


Joe Lieberman


I recently covered Joe Lieberman and his career, but he succeeded after being defeated in the Democratic primary by future Governor Ned Lamont, for reasons mainly surrounding his stance on the Iraq War. He ran for reelection anyway and won as an Independent Democrat, although he continued to caucus with Democrats for his final term.

Arlen Specter

One of the failed examples of a party switch to save a career was Senator Arlen Specter. Specter switched parties twice in his career. First, in 1965, he switched from Democrat to Republican to run for DA of Philadelphia after he had lost the Democratic nomination for the post and Senator Hugh Scott (R-Penn.) made sure he had no competition in the primary. This launches his long and successful career, with him being elected to the Senate in 1980. However, he has a reputation as a moderate-to-liberal Republican by his record. This plus his staunchly pro-choice stances (he originated the labeling of Roe v. Wade as a “super precedent”) led to conservative Republicans seeking his defeat by the second Bush Administration. In 2004, Bush endorsed him for renomination, and this plus his colleague Rick Santorum’s (R-Penn.) support narrowly averted a primary defeat by Representative Pat Toomey.

By 2009, Specter was again facing yet another strong challenge from Toomey and he no longer had Bush in the White House or Santorum in the Senate to provide powerful endorsements. Thus, he switched to the Democratic Party. However, many rank-and-file Democrats in Pennsylvania didn’t want him either and Congressman Joe Sestak ran for the nomination. Despite the endorsements of President Obama and Governor Ed Rendell, Sestak beat Specter by over seven points and narrowly lost the election to Pat Toomey.

In truth, Sinema’s switch is a bit difficult to compare with others, as in the cases of Byrd Jr. and Lieberman, they were after primary defeat, and both continued to caucus with the Democrats with Lieberman in truth remaining a Democrat. Curiously, although Sinema has been strongly noted for certain key dissents as a Democrat, she has voted far more with Democrats than she gets credit for and if ADA scores are on the nose, votes more with them as a senator than as a representative. Sinema’s Senate scores per ADA have been, without taking absences into account, 63%, 85%, and 80%. By contrast, her House scores were: 53%, 40%, 37%, 60%, 65%, and 35%.

5 thoughts on “Switching Parties as a Survival Strategy – It Can Work!

  1. One slight correction: George Rawlings didn’t defeat Harry Byrd Jr. in the 1970 Democratic primary, because Byrd wasn’t running in that primary. Byrd announced on March 17, 1970, that he would not file to run in the Democratic primary, and he didn’t. See Harry F. Byrd, Jr., Beating the Odds An Independent Senator’s Historic Campaign (1998), pp. 26-32. The Dem primary candidates in 1970 were Rawlings, Clive DuVal, and somebody named Milton Colvin.

  2. Good Job Daniel! For Christmas, You Gentleman Might Want To Check Out The Career Of Congressman Thomas L Blanton Of Texas. (A Fellow Alum Of Mine) Sort Of A Precursor Of Bob Gross IN Objecting To Spending & Waste. A Contemporary Of John Rankin & Martin Dies. Out Of Office, Blanton Blasted LBJ In A Public Letter During The 1948 Senate Race. Thanks From Dave IN TEXAS. Merry Christmas.

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