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Bad Switch

We trust that Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) is being well-rewarded by House Republican leaders for his switch to the GOP on Aug. 6. For the deceitful way he did it — less than 30 minutes before the filing deadline and after first filing as a Democrat just days earlier— he certainly has aroused the ire of Louisiana and national Democrats, many of his state’s newspapers, his Washington staff and, presumably, some voters in his district.

The Louisiana Democratic Party is suing to have Alexander removed from the ballot on the grounds that he violated state election law by collecting signatures to qualify as a Democrat, then switching. We’re not Louisiana lawyers, so we don’t know whether the suit is merited or, as Alexander says, “frivolous.” In principle, we think that voters in the 5th district should be able to vote for — or against — whomever they want, including Alexander.

And this is precisely why what Alexander did was so perfidious: He deprived the voters in his district of the opportunity to have a fair choice in this election. He owed them fair warning that he was intent on switching parties, so that Democrats could select a viable candidate against him.

Last March, when rumors swirled he was about to switch, he denied them and expressed loyalty to the Democratic Party. On Aug. 4, he actually filed for re-election as a Democrat. So, his switch two days later can only have been a political maneuver.

As Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg points out in his column today, the eternal model for the right way to switch parties is then-Rep. (and later Sen.) Phil Gramm of Texas. Gramm was re-elected to the House in 1982 as a Democrat, resigned his seat two months later and stood for re-election as a Republican in a February 1983 special election. Of the dozens of others who have switched parties in the past 30 years, Gramm stands alone in assuring that voters in his district had an opportunity to accept or reject him after changing his party label.

Alexander — and, illustrating that this myopia afflicts Members of both parties, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) — are examples of how not to switch. Jeffords was re-elected for a third term as a Republican in 2000. Just a few months into the new Congress, he decided to switch, formally becoming an Independent but voting with Democrats and enabling them to take over the Senate. Surely, Vermont voters deserved a chance to factor in the possibility that their votes would turn the Senate from Republican to Democrat.

The best that can be said about Alexander is that, after House Democrats demanded it, he vowed to return campaign contributions from fellow Members and anyone else who asks. House Democrats want him to return party funds that helped him get elected by a hairsbreadth in 2002, but that’s not necessary. He did serve most of his first term as a Democrat, even if he often voted with Republicans.

Alexander almost certainly will be re-elected. A virtual unknown, homemaker Zelma Blakes, has filed to run as a Democrat. Former state Rep. Jock Scott (R) is also in the race, but polls show Alexander ahead by nearly 70 points. The district is heavily Republican, and he’s been voting in tune with his district. So the problem isn’t so much with the fact that Alexander switched. It’s how he did it that he should be ashamed of.