Less than two weeks after he switched from Democrat to Republican, Rep. Parker Griffith is still the subject of the hottest political talk in his state of Alabama. His problem with the Democratic Party he so recently forsook may be only the beginning. Yesterday, his entire staff resigned.
Perhaps the most cogent analysis of Griffith’s problems came from one of the state’s veteran conservative activist who spoke to me yesterday: “At a time when conservatives are looking for leaders and feel there are too many people more interested in politics and not issues, Griffith looks like the kind of office-holder who got us into trouble. His party switch appears disingenuous to folks I’ve talked to and, quite honestly, people just don’t like the guy.”
Eric Johnston, Birmingham attorney and president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, made it clear he wanted his assessment of freshman lawmaker Griffith “on the record.” Johnston and I spoke yesterday soon after the news broke that all of the Alabama congressman’s Washington staff had resigned. As this was happening, Republicans in Griffith’s 5th District (Huntsville) were talking very openly about a challenge to the congressman their national party leaders in Washington had warmly welcomed to the GOP.
“My guess is that many of the Republican congressmen who are supporting [Griffith] now aren’t aware of the strong feeling of distrust toward him here,” said Wayne Parker, who lost by nearly 9,000 votes out of more than 300,000 cast as the Republican nominee against then-Democrat Griffith in ’08.
Parker recalled to me how Griffith, as a Democratic senator before his election to Congress, had a liberal voting record.
“And the bottom line in our campaign was that he would vote the Pelosi Democratic Party line in Congress,” he said, “and while he has made a few exceptions—such as opposing cap and trade and the health care bill with public option—he has generally done what the Democratic leadership wants.”
I can’t say I was surprised when Parker concluded by saying of Griffith: “I’m not going to support him.”
Small businessman Parker is considering another race for the seat that narrowly eluded him in ’08, this time in a primary against newly-minted Republican Griffith. So is lawyer Stan McDonald, a top aide to the late Republican Gov. Guy Hunt and the brother-in-law of Rep. Robert Aderholt (R.-Ala.).
Already in the race and firing away at Griffith are businessman Les Phillip, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and former state legislator Mo Brooks. Both point out that, as a Democrat, Griffith made large campaign contributions to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and to the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Lesson from History
Shortly after Griffith’s surprise announcement that he was becoming a Republican. I spoke to the last Democratic House Member who switched parties and was thereupon defeated in the primary. Greg Laughlin of Texas, a four-term “Blue Dog Democrat” who became a Republican in 1995 and was defeated in the run-off the following year by an opponent named Ron Paul.
“I’m glad you said ‘run-off’ because I led Ron Paul in the initial primary but a third candidate forced us into a subsequent race,” Laughlin told me. He noted that the third candidate [1994 GOP nominee Jim Deetz] thereupon endorsed Paul and he won the run-off over Laughlin.
When he became one of five Democratic House Members to switch parties in 1995, Laughlin had solid backing from national party leaders from Speaker Newt Gingrich on down and of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Sen. Phil Gramm and present Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
“And I was backed by 22 of the 23 county Republican chairmen,” he added.
So why did Laughlin — who was elected as a “center right” Democrat in 1988 and gradually became more conservative before he made the switch — lose?
“The circumstances of the run-off worked against me,” he recalled, “And I did face a well-known opponent who had national fund-raising resources. But again, Texas is one of nine states that has a run-off requirement. Had we had a primary in which the top vote-getter wins, I would have won.”
With Florida scrapping its run-off requirement, eight states remain with such a rule. Alabama is one of those states. And it is very likely that Parker, McDonald, Phillip, Brooks or all of the above are well-connected enough in their communities to be well-funded.
As a Republican, then, Parker Griffith has his hands full in November.