Conservative Democrats defecting to GOP looks unlikely, political scientists say

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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If Republicans are in a pinch after November’s election, and need a few extra seats to secure a comfortable majority in the House, is it possible that conservative Democrats will be persuaded to defect and join the GOP?

Political scientists say it’s possible, but not likely.

Dr. Merle Black, an expert on southern politics at Emory University, said he’s not sure the GOP would embrace Democrats who just defeated their Republican nominee.

“I don’t know how serious that would be or how warmly they’d be received by the Republicans in the immediate aftermath of a campaign where they [were] trying to win as Democrats or at least nominal Democrats,” he said.

Another reason such a scenario seems unlikely is that the Republicans could very well win a comfortable majority, and the Democrats just will not be needed.

“If [Republicans] only have a few votes, they might want to increase their margins and under that situation they might approach the others,” he said of the GOP leadership reaching out to conservative Democrats. “But if they’re ahead by ten or 15 seats, I think the attitude of the Republican leaders will be ‘you need us more than we need you.’”

Here are possible conservative Democrats that Republicans could approach:

—Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, who recently said he does not plan to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

—Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia, who also recently announced that he’d support a moderate speaker over Pelosi.

—Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, who was endorsed (though he eventually turned it down) by the Tea Party Express.

—Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who voted against President Obama’s health care bill.

—Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a long-serving Gulf Coast Democrat who also voted against Obama’s health care bill this year.

—Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma, a gun-rights proponent who voted against the health care bill.

Asked whether House Republican leader Boehner is planning to approach these or other Democrats, spokesman Michael Steel dismissed the notion. He said by e-mail that Boehner “is 100-percent-focused on earning the majority in the House.”

Such a response, Black said, is predictable.

“Right now, they’re obviously not going to say anything,” the political scientist said. “To say anything would undermine the Republican candidates.”

Representatives for two of the Democrats said there’s no way their member would switch parties. Minnick spokesman John Foster said, “Walt has always said ‘No’ to that question.” A spokesman for Marshall simply said “no.”

That’s not surprising, says Dr. Andrea Hatcher, a professor at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. She said these Democrats would have no reason to switch parties after November, as the electoral incentive would be gone.

“If Bright, for example, successfully wins a second term as a Dem in these hard-fought conditions, what incentive would he have to switch parties thereafter?” she asked.

In 1994, then Democratic Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby became a Republican the day after the GOP sweep of Congress. He has since gone on to win re-election on the GOP ticket. But as of recently, party switchers have not always be as lucky.
Most recently, Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith left the Democratic Party before this year’s elections to become a Republican, but lost the GOP primary. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter left the GOP to run as a Democrat this year, but also lost his primary.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist also left the Republican Party this year to run as independent for the U.S. Senate, but general election polls show him down.