“I didn’t leave my party, my party left me. I haven’t changed, my party has.”
Those are the words we in Oklahoma have recently heard from two high-profile Republicans who are both switching political parties to run for governor.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who won an election and served as a Republican, announced last week that she is switching to the Democratic party to seek the nomination to run for governor in 2022. And on Tuesday, former state Sen. Erwin Yen announced he was switching from Republican to independent, also to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt for the 2022 race.
Political party switching isn’t anything new, but it does generate more headlines the more prominent the candidate and the closer to election time it comes.
Why do government officials who have served in office in one party switch to the other party? Of course, many times it’s ideological differences. Their views no longer align with those of their current party. Some politicians also switch to get what they perceive is a political advantage to improve their chances for re-election.
In this time of increased partisan divides, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more party switches. I’m predicting most of the switches will be Republicans changing to Democrats or independents. However, there was a time, back in the late ’90s and early-2000s, where more Democrats switched to Republican.
Both Hofmeister and Yen said the Republican Party they knew has “left them.” They are saying the Republican Party has become too extreme, and in a sense, they are not wrong. The Republican Party overall has appeared to change dramatically in reaction to former President Donald Trump.
Trump has been a party switcher himself. He registered as a Republican in Manhattan in 1987, switched to the Reform Party in 1999, the Democratic Party in 2001 and back to the Republican Party in 2009.
As many have noted, the Republicans and Democrats seem to have switched ideologies over the last 150 years. During the time of the Civil War, Republicans dominated northern states and were interested in expanding federal power to help fund the transcontinental railroad, the university system and the settlement of the west, according to an article written by Natalie Wolchover of Live Science. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for Black Americans and advanced social justice.
Switch to 1936 when Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt won re-election on the strength of the New Deal, Wolchover writes. It was a plethora of reforms meant to remedy the impacts of the Depression, including regulation of financial institutions, the founding of welfare and pension programs, infrastructure development etc.
Today, the Democratic Party continues to be the party of bigger and expanded government while the Republican Party touts smaller government and fewer regulations.
As of October 2021, Ballotpedia counts 145 state legislators who have switched parties since 1994. The number of state lawmakers who switched from Democrat to Republican is 74. Republican to Democrat is 20. (This doesn’t include those who switched to minor parties).
History has documented some interesting high-profile party switches over the years. Ronald Reagan switched to Republican in 1962 as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Elizabeth Dole, a former U.S. senator and secretary of Transportation and Labor, switched to Republican in 1975. Former Vice President Mike Pence was a Democrat until he switched to Republican sometime in the 1980s. And noted conservative William Bennett, who served as U.S. secretary of Education under Reagan, left the Democratic Party to become a Republican in 1986.
It might surprise some to know that former first lady, U.S. senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a Republican until 1968. Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, was a Republican until 1971. Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and Democratic chair, switched from Republican in the 1960s. Former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a Republican until 1995.
The vast majority of those who affiliate with a political party will stay with those parties through thick and thin. While partisan leanings of individuals don’t change over short periods of time, an ongoing, chaotic ideological shift within a party could lead to more folks switching parties down the road. Having a viable third party would be a benefit to those who feel abandoned by their parties.