Updated: 4:37 p.m.
Freshman Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) made it official Tuesday afternoon, announcing that he is switching parties and joining the Republican Conference, effective immediately.
“As the 111th Congress has progressed, I have become increasingly concerned that the bills and policies pushed by the current Democratic leadership are not good for North Alabama or our nation, and more importantly, they do not represent my values and convictions,— Griffith said at a news conference in Huntsville, where he keeps a Congressional office. Citing his votes against top Democratic priorities since he entered Congress in January, he said now needs to “go even further and stand with a party that is more in tune with my beliefs and convictions.—
Griffith said the decision to quit the majority was not an easy one, but he wasted no time blasting his former party for an agenda he described as reckless.
“I now believe that the differences in the two parties could not be more clear,— he said.
Griffith singled out two areas of concern driving the decision — spending on defense and space programs, both of which have a significant presence in his district, and the Democratic health care reform push. He said by working with Republicans in the delegation, he could be a more effective advocate for his hometown interests — such as a missile defense shield that would mean big business for the Boeing Missile Defense Systems division headquartered there. And as a radiation oncologist, he slammed the a health care package as “bad for our doctors, it’s bad for our patients, it’s bad for our men and women who are considering going into the health care fields.—
Griffith made the final call on Sunday, when he phoned House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) with his decision. A GOP aide insisted that at the time, no deals were struck and Republicans promised him no committee assignments — only that he would be welcomed with good standing in the party.
It also appears that Griffith made the first move. Griffith first approached fellow Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner (R) about making the switch sometime this fall, according to a GOP aide. Boehner then spoke to Griffith about potentially switching parties, and the two had conversations for an uncertain amount of time.
The culmination of the discussions, the aide said, occurred last week when Boehner and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) met separately and secretly last week with the then-Democrat. The Alabama delegation was also heavily involved in the switch.
A key point came this fall when Griffith was one of the first Democrats to join with House Republicans for a “read the bill— discharge petition for legislation mandating that all bills before the House be made public for 72 hours before being voted on.
Griffith beat Republican Wayne Parker in a bitter 2008 general election to replace nine-term Rep. Bud Cramer (D). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent more than $1 million in independent expenditures to help elect Griffith and the NRCC spent more than half a million dollars trying to swing the seat to the GOP.
Since his election, Griffith has distinguished himself as one of the most consistent votes against Democratic leadership, lining up against the party on the stimulus package, the budget, the climate change bill, the health care overhaul, Wall Street reform and the most recent jobs bill. And he has been an outspoken critic of the leadership team, declaring during an August town hall on health care reform that he would not support Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) re-election as Speaker.
But through Sept. 30, Griffith had received more than $75,000 in campaign contributions from the political action committees and campaign committees of various House Democrats, including Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Griffith had donated just more than $1,000 to the DCCC from his campaign account this cycle.
A senior Democratic aide said Tuesday that Griffith had not informed party leadership or his staff about the impending switch before news broke Tuesday morning. One GOP aide said Griffith has been discussing the switch with House GOP leaders and statewide officials for weeks.
In a statement Tuesday, Van Hollen demanded that Griffith return all donations from Democrats.
“House Democratic Members and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took Parker Griffith at his word and, as a result, invested a great deal in working with Alabamans to bring Mr. Griffith to Congress,— Van Hollen said. “We were committed to helping Mr. Griffith deliver for his constituents and successfully helped Mr. Griffith fend off the personal attacks against him from the far right.
“Mr. Griffith, failing to honor our commitment to him, has a duty and responsibility to return to Democratic Members and the DCCC the financial resources that were invested in him. His constituents will hold him accountable for failing to keep his commitments.—
Van Hollen’s counterpart at the NRCC, Sessions, called Griffith’s move a powerful signal of Democratic misery to come.
The decision, he said, “is emblematic of the message that millions of concerned citizens have been trying to send to a Democrat Party that has become increasingly unwilling to listen. Whether Democrat leaders choose to pay attention now or wait for the electorate to send them a resounding message next November, Parker Griffith’s willingness to put the interests of his district first sends a positive signal to others who have grown just as disappointed with their party as the American people have.—
A senior Blue Dog staffer likewise said the defection should come as a wake-up call to Pelosi and her leadership team, even if it also amounted to a betrayal of a caucus that had invested time and money in helping establish Griffith in the House.
“If the Speaker and some of the progressives don’t wake up about what they’re doing to moderate Members, it may be to late,— the staffer said, adding that the leadership team is failing to grasp the “angst in moderate world and the kind of pounding we’re taking at home right now.—
On the other end of the party’s ideological spectrum, the reaction was closer to wishing Griffith good riddance. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted that Griffith simply was aligning his party with his votes.
“He was voting with them all the way through,— Grijalva said. “It’s not a political epiphany. He went to his side of the barn, but he was already there.—
Grijalva said Griffith’s defection also raises questions about the Democrats pouring millions of dollars into winning districts with conservative Members. “Sometimes in an effort to win a district we create more problems for ourselves,— he said.
Grijalva said he is less worried about conservative Democrats switching parties or getting defeated next year than he is about rallying the Democratic Party’s base.
But despite hostility on the left, Griffith’s switch certainly won’t be embraced by all conservatives.
The anti-tax group Club for Growth — a conservative powerhouse that has had no qualms about taking on the Republican establishment in the past — wrote on its official blog Tuesday that “this party switch signals Griffith’s nervousness, but it doesn’t signal that his incumbency is safe.—
“Griffith’s voting record is far from conservative,— club Vice President Andy Roth wrote. “His vote on the budget is slightly deceptive since he originally voted for 9 of the 12 spending bills that make up the budget. And he voted against all the Stimulus amendments that would reduce its size.—
Two Republicans have been running for Griffith’s seat: Navy veteran Lester Phillip, an African-American who has helped the state and national party with minority outreach, and Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks. It is not clear whether either will yield to Griffith now.
Griffith will become the first House Member to switch parties since Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) jumped from the Democrats to the GOP. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) left the Republican Party to become a Democrat this spring.
Griffith’s party switch adds to the House Democrats’ woes in the South, where the districts held by retiring Reps. John Tanner (Tenn.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.) are in danger of flipping to the GOP. Griffith’s north Alabama district gave 61 percent of the vote to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 White House election.
Democrats did receive some good news in that region this week when House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), who had been the subject of retirement rumors, announced his plans to seek re-election.
Jackie Kucinich, Shira Toeplitz and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.