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The Misfits: Eight Politicians Who Really Ought to Switch

4 years ago
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RINOs and conservadems are cutting quite a swath these days -- making demands, frustrating their colleagues, wielding clout and even influencing elections. Not surprisingly, the nicknames aren't terms of endearment. GOP conservatives disparage GOP moderates as Republicans In Name Only. Democratic liberals apply the conservadems label to party brethren they consider obstructions to President Obama's agenda.

It would make perfect sense for a lot of the misfits to switch parties. But that would mean sacrificing their dissident status and the attention that goes with it. It would also mean less havoc -- a sad prospect for those who enjoy political spectacle.

The very word havoc brings to mind New York's 23rd Congressional District and state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate who failed practically every existing GOP litmus test. Her positions include support for gay marriage, abortion rights and a federal bill making it easier for workers to form unions. She's married to a labor organizer who is registered as an independent (they met when she became his investment adviser.) She suspended her campaign just before Election Day and, citing Democrat Bill Owens's ability to help on local issues, she endorsed him instead of conservative Doug Hoffman.

Related: Dede Scozzafava: No Regrets and a Mission to Promote Independent Thinking Within GOP

Why on earth is Scozzafava a Republican? As is so often the case with political identity, it's genetic. "My whole family has pretty much been Republican. My brothers. My mother and father. I don't think I'm in the wrong party. I just think the party has really changed," Scozzafava told me. She had to resign her leadership position in the Legislature after endorsing Owens and said "the jury's out whether I think that's 100 percent fair or not." But is she leaving the GOP? Forget it. "I'm fine," she said, adding Republican legislators gave her a standing ovation on her return to Albany.

Louisiana Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, the lone Republican to vote for the House version of health reform last weekend, also is sticking with the GOP -- even though his New Orleans district is heavily Democratic and even though the GOP had hoped to be able to say not one Republican voted for the bill. "He would never switch parties," said Cao spokeswoman Princella Smith. She said GOP leaders aren't holding his vote against him. "He has their backing. He's enjoying being a member of the Republican Party," she said.

Here are some of the other politicians who have gone AWOL or contrarian on their leaders (and this is by no means a complete list):

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. You may have heard this name lately. Stupak was the lead sponsor of a restrictive abortion amendment that, to the shock and outrage of abortion-rights advocates, got a floor vote last Saturday and ended up in the final version of the House health bill. Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker called the Stupak amendment "a very hostile act" against his party and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "With Democrats like that, Pelosi doesn't need Republicans," he said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. She was one of only three Republicans to vote for Obama's $787 billion stimulus package in February (the others were Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and fellow Maine Sen. Susan Collins) and the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to vote for the panel's health care bill. The stimulus was drawn to the trio's specifications and the health bill reflected Snowe's twin preoccupations of controlling spending and making sure there was enough subsidy money to make insurance coverage affordable for low- and middle-income people. A new poll is showing erosion of Snowe's position among Republicans, but she's plenty popular with Democrats. She's lamented Specter's switch from Republican to Democrat this year; let's see what happens in 2011 when Snowe could be looking at a conservative primary challenge as daunting as the one that drove Specter out of his party.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska. Nelson, a former governor, knows what it takes to get elected in his conservative state -- but that's no comfort to liberal Democrats or to Democratic leaders looking for the magic 60 votes needed to move things along in the Senate. Nelson often seems to be drawing lines in the sand. His latest conditions: He will only support a health reform bill if it has the restrictive Stupak language on abortion and doesn't include a public health insurance option.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's a Republican married to Democrat Maria Shriver, part of the Kennedy family. He supports abortion rights and gun control, he welcomed Obama's stimulus package, and he defended raising taxes in his state. He's kept his state in the lead on renewable energy and pollution control, and he called it historic when the House passed a sweeping energy and climate bill that would curb emissions under a cap-and-trade system. Schwarzenegger will be leaving office in early 2011 to the relief of conservative California Republicans. He may never officially switch parties, but his political home is obvious.

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. He's not a household name, but for a while he was all over liberal blogs, and not in a good way. Ross led a contingent of fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats trying to shape the House health care bill in committee. He managed to slow down the process and get concessions on the bill. But when it came up on the floor, he voted 'no.'

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. There are two independents in the Senate. Both caucus with the Democrats, but only one causes all kinds of complications. It's not the self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It's Lieberman. At the moment Lieberman is threatening to join Republicans to filibuster any health bill that includes a public insurance option. A defense hawk who urged the invasion of Iraq, Lieberman has shown an unusual openness to different political identities. He moved from Democrat to independent in 2006. He supported Republican John McCain last year for president and almost made it onto the GOP ticket in the same position he held on the Democratic ticket in 2000 -- vice president. If Republicans controlled the Senate, it's easy to picture Lieberman caucusing with them or even making an official switch. But Democrats control the chamber and have made Lieberman, their theoretical 60th vote, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Don't look for any changes, unless he gets Democrats so upset they take away that chairmanship.

Update: Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, citing this piece and in particular its headline, writes that she disagrees with me. She likes big-tent politics. (So do I, actually, but this has been an especially trying year for both parties).

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