Congressional Democrats received a near-final version of health care reform as their gift from Santa this year. Congressional Republicans got Parker Griffith. The freshman Democratic House member from northern Alabama announced Dec. 22 that he was switching his allegiance to the GOP.
Geographically, the move made perfect sense. The bulk of party switches in the House over the last two decades have involved conservative Southern Democrats migrating to the ranks of the Republicans.
In terms of the partisan nature of his district, Griffith’s switch also made sense. It favored GOP presidential candidates in both 2004 and 2008 by margins in excess of 20 percentage points.
Yet it was highly unusual that Griffith left the majority party in Congress to join the minority. Not since 1989 has there been a similar move by a House member to the Republican minority, according to a chart in last Wednesday’s edition of USA Today. And two decades ago the GOP held the White House.
The big question now is whether Griffith’s shift is a precursor of a major Republican comeback in 2010, or whether it is an isolated incident whose significance is limited to the boundaries of his district.
It would certainly mean more nationally if it were followed in the months ahead by several other party switches to the Republicans. That has not happened on Capitol Hill since 1995, in the wake of the GOP’s takeover of Congress.
In the meantime, Griffith’s bolt to the GOP should enhance his chances for reelection next year. But it does not mean he will have a free ride. Rather, his moment of reckoning may be moved up five months, from the November general election to the June primary. There, the prospect of a strong intra-party challenge to the House’s newest Republican member is a real possibility.