Last month’s announcement by freshman Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) that he would leave the Democratic Party to caucus with Republicans robs Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of a vote, but it also gives her and the Democratic leadership a unique opportunity. Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) should spend in Griffith’s 2010 GOP primary to serve notice to any current and future Democratic Members who might consider a move to demonstrate that switching parties has consequences.
Griffith’s decision to jump ship for the minority is really not that shocking when you consider the circumstances. Elected in 2008, Griffith had a hard time holding on to a historically Democratic seat, winning by just 52 percent to 48 percent. Today, the Democratic brand is unpopular nationally and especially in Alabama, where President Barack Obama is deeply disliked. Griffith looked at his electoral options, and with eager GOP Members wooing him, decided he had a better chance to win a second term running as a Republican.
Griffith’s move also epitomizes the general behavior of politicians. When it comes down to it, Members care more about preserving their incumbency than anything else. Winning re-election supersedes everything. This thought calculus was clearly at play here. Life in Congress probably was not exactly what Griffith expected, as his Democratic colleagues are appreciably more liberal across the board than what Griffith was used to in Montgomery as a member of the Alabama state Senate.
Upon Griffith’s announcement, Democratic leadership needed to swiftly take the temperature of the Caucus and approach other Members who might move — such as vulnerable freshmen or those in very red territory — to block any momentum Republicans might have in identifying wavering Democrats. It appears they were successful and that no similar defections are on the horizon.
But politically, Pelosi’s work should not be finished, and in addition to reinforcing her Caucus, Democratic leadership should take one further step and decide to spend money in Griffith’s own primary next year to ensure that he does not get a second term. That’s right, in the Republican primary.
While this measure may sound like unproductive political vengeance borne out of hot-tempered resentment, it would achieve an important strategic purpose.
Party-switching is the ultimate act of political betrayal, and this is particularly true in Griffith’s case. Democrats actively recruited Griffith for his Huntsville-based open seat when former Rep. Bud Cramer (D) stepped aside, and the DCCC spent $1.1 million to help carry Griffith across the finish line. In becoming a Republican, Griffith brusquely pushed this history aside to give him a better chance at re-election. In response, the DCCC should commit to spending somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000 to attack Griffith in his primary.
Despite any promises from House GOP leadership to help clear the field for Griffith, the new Republican will have primary opposition. For one thing, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) have limited pull to affect an Alabama primary pool.
More importantly, voter anger in the Republican base this cycle assures that Griffith will have some form of robust opposition. Even though Griffith has a voting record in tune with some archconservatives in the House today, many GOP voters who are eager to cast out “Republicans in name only— from the party will look past that. Griffith will be seen an apostate to many Republicans back in Northern Alabama, thereby making him a big target.
Given this vulnerability, a quarter of a million dollars from the DCCC on direct-mail pieces and Huntsville TV ads labeling Griffith a “liberal Republican— or “thanking him— for his support of President Obama’s agenda could be enough to topple him. Should Democrats spend generously, regardless of the outcome, the word will be out that the leadership plays hardball and that switching teams could be a career-ending maneuver.
Democratic spending in the Alabama 5th district primary would not be unprecedented. After former GOP Rep. Mike Forbes (N.Y.) became a Democrat in 1999, then-NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) targeted Forbes, spending around $100,000 in the Democratic primary, aiding Forbes’ defeat at the hands of a 71-year-old former librarian. Davis, who today remains one of the most brilliant Republican strategists around, sent a clear message not just to Forbes but to any other Republican who might have considered becoming a Democrat.
Granted, Forbes’ New York district was a swing district — one that the GOP sought to win outright in 2000 and did — while Alabama’s 5th is strongly conservative, and despite its deep Democratic ancestry, is a near-lock to remain in the GOP column in 2010. But this only makes Democrats’ wading into the next GOP primary more tactical in a Machiavellian sense, if not practical for the sole sake of winning the seat again.
The opportunity for Congressional Democrats in Alabama is unique and different from party-switching cases in the recent past. Unlike with Virgil Goode (Va.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Rodney Alexander (La.) and others, Democrats can affect Griffith’s primary because the national GOP will be hamstrung from preventing primary challenges from developing. The conservative electorate is simply too angry this year. Furthermore, in contrast to those cases that occurred when they were in the minority, House Democrats today are operating from a position of relative strength, boasting a large majority and deep cash reserves at the DCCC. Their participation in a party-switcher’s primary is thus opportune and would not cost too much.
Pelosi and Van Hollen’s decision to dedicate money in a district that can’t be won will strike many as a wasteful and perhaps foolish venture, particularly in a year where the party will need every cent possible to protect the seats they still have.
This is a short-sighted reading. Every dollar is needed in every cycle, so that’s a weak argument. When you’re at the top of the hill as House Democrats are, you stay where you are by being shrewd and ahead of the curve. Democrats came out of the wilderness of minority status by being aggressive, and there is no area more deserving of cutting action than political treachery.
Democrats may not be able to dislodge Parker Griffith from office, but in attempting to oust him in his Republican primary, they will send a powerful warning to future party-switchers. And heck, regardless of the overall November 2010 outcome, should the Democrats’ intervention lead to Griffith’s defeat, it will perk up a party that has been stung by switchers in the past. It will feel pretty sweet, too.
Mark Greenbaum is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.