As French Immigration Minister Eric Besson and now-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith can attest to, it’s never fun playing the role of the traitor. Your former friends detest you, your new allies disdain what they see as crass opportunism and resent your jumping over them without putting in the time to display any commitment to their movement, and no one can trust someone who has displayed a complete lack of loyalty. That Griffith reportedly downloaded voter information from the state Democratic Party’s files on the eve of his secret switch only heightens the perfidious nature of his move.
Back in the spring, Arlen Specter discovered it would not be easy to pull off his own transition but he was protected by the White House, which reigned in much of the Democratic attacks that would otherwise have reigned in on the senator; Specter could not avoid a credible primary challenge from Joe Sestak, but in recent months he has been working overtime to portray himself as a zealous liberal, so we shall see what comes out of this race in the first four months of 2010.
Griffith, on the other hand, can hardly expect effective protection: The GOP has no national leader who can convince local Republicans to accept him in their midst. As such, Griffith has faced a deluge of attacks from all quarters ever since he announced he would join the Republican caucus - not just by Democrats and conservative activists, but also by mainstream GOP officials! - so much so that it’s doubtful he improved his re-election chances.
It all started with an all-out Democratic declaration of war, which Griffith must have been expecting. Yet, his finances will find themselves deflated once Griffith returns the DCCC and fellow Democratic lawmakers’ contributions, as he has already agreed to do; he will also have to find himself an entirely new campaign and legislative team, since his consultants and staff are quitting en masse; and his former allies will spare him nothing, whether unearthing old quotes in which he professes his allegiance to Democrats to pointing out that Griffith donated substantial amounts to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004.
Conservative attacks were also to be expected. “We will not fix the GOP’s problems if we keep allowing people who are not one of us to suddenly switch the letter next to their name and magically become one of us,” wrote Red State. Yet, Griffith is certainly not in Specter’s position - i.e. someone whose lifetime voting record is often diametrically antithetical to his new party. In fact, the speed with which the right signaled it was not willing to accept the Alabaman was surprising given how uniformly conservative his 2009 voting record has been. The Club for Growth, for instance, was reduced to pointing to the amendments to the budget bill as Griffith’s main offense; the only high-profile vote they highlighted was Griffith’s support for the cash-for-clunker bill, which 59 Republicans supported.
Griffith was surely hoping to at least receive a more positive reception from the Republican establishment and from independent outlets, but even that hasn’t been the case: state Treasurer Kay Ivey, who is certainly not known as a movement conservative, wasted no time before blasting Griffith’s move and The Huntsville Times published a brutal editorial denouncing Griffith’s move as sure to harm the district. (Speaking of establishment support: I wonder if Griffith managed to extract a commitment that the NRCC will help him survive the primary. While it would be logical for him to have done so, officials are probably not looking to antagonize conservative activists who are already angry at the national committees’ often heavy-handed involvement in local matters.)
Given these near-unanimously critical reactions, should we be surprised that Griffith’s re-election prospects look just as endangered as they were last week? For one, there is now no doubt that he will face a very tough GOP primary: Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks, who had been preparing for months to run a top-tier campaign, has made it clear he will stick to the race. The party’s 2008 nominee Wayne Parker is also considering jumping in. (Note that Griffith cannot hope to clinch a plurality victory as his rivals divide the anti-incumbent vote because Alabama has a two-round primary system, which will force him to get 50% to move on to the general election.)
Second, Democrats might still have a shot at contesting the general election. District voters have never voted for a Republican congressman, so the Democratic nominee can certainly hope to appeal to the electorate’s loyalty to overcome the fact that McCain received 61% of the vote in 2008 (after all, Griffith managed to win an open seat that year, and he certainly was not helped by the top-of-the-ticket coattails considering Obama only got 38%). The most intriguing possibility is that Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who is currently running for Governor, downgrade his ambitions to the House race; he pointedly refused to rule out the possibility. Another possibility is Public Service Commissioner Susan Parker, who also held the statewide office of Auditor, but local blog Political Parlor deems her entry unlikely because she would have to give up her current office.
Note that from the perspective of the GOP leadership it could not matter less whether Griffith survives the primary: Whoever moves on to the general election, the Republican nominee will not have to face a Democratic incumbent. While Sparks or Parker could make the general election competitive, there is no doubt that the GOP is now clearly favored to hold AL-05 in the 112th Congress.
But from Griffith’s perspective, it obviously matters a great deal. As such, his fate over the past few days will not help Republicans convince other Democrats to cross over. Within a day of the Alabaman’s announcement, the two freshmen representatives who represent the most hostile districts announced they were sticking with Democrats: Rep. Bobby Bright (AL-02) reportedly said as much to DCCC officials, while Rep. Walt Minnick (ID-01) released a statement. Of course, they might very well change their minds in the months ahead, but I would not hold my breath - especially for Minnick: Releasing a statement (as opposed to than privately informing party officials, as Bright did) is the type of incriminating commitment he would not want out there if he was secretly mulling a switch.
Yet, an unexpected Democrat emerged as the most open to becoming a Republican: Rep. Chris Carney, a sophomore who represents a district (PA-10) Bush won by 20% and McCain by 9%. When Politico reported that prominent Republicans were reaching out to Carney and that he had received a phone call from no other than John McCain, the congressman’s office responded: “No further comment at this time.” The next day, however, Carney put a statement announcing that, “I appreciate the Republican Party’s outreach, but I have no plans to change parties.”
There has been a fair amount of skepticism that Carney might ever have seriously considering switching parties. While he is a Blue Dog, he has never tried to position himself as one of the more conservative House Democrats: He voted for the health-care bill, for the stimulus, for the financial regulation bill. In a district with a substantial conservative electorate, how could he possibly have survived a Republican primary with such a record?
Rather, Carney might have been signaling he was considering switching parties to draw attention to the fact that Republicans were courting him - something he is sure to bring up in his general election campaign next fall. In fact, Carney wasted no time touting his independence in light of these latest developments: “I am flattered by the overtures of Sen. McCain and other Republican Party officials and consider their outreach a sure sign that I have worked in a truly bipartisan manner,” he said in the same statement that announced he would stay a Democrat. “I always put my district above political party and have maintained an independent voice.” Given Carney’s voting record, how did the GOP leadership not see this was coming?