Conservatives Not Ready to Embrace Party-Switcher

December 22, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.)

On Tuesday morning, Politico broke the news that Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) was switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP. For Les Phillip — a Tea Party activist who’d been waging a Republican campaign for Griffith’s seat since August — it was “manna from heaven.”

“This is why we do the things we do,” Phillip told TWI. “This gives us a chance to judge his entire record. If he wants to play on this side of the hall, our voters are very aware of the issues and we hold everyone accountable.”

[GOP1] Before Griffith had even explained his decision in a brief mid-afternoon press conference, Phillip made it clear to TWI that the switch would do nothing to deter his bid. If anything, it gave his insurgent campaign — which has won the support of Mike Huckabee’s HuckPAC — a new argument against the first-term congressman.

“This is an act of desperation to maintain power,” said Phillip. “It’s exactly what people in this district are sick of. When someone lied before, and now says he’s telling the truth, well, was he lying then, or is he lying now?”

Griffith’s switch — the first time a Democratic congressman has made this jump since Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) did in 2004 — has been welcomed by the national GOP. In no time at all, party leaders made the connection between Griffith’s move and the progress of a health care bill that looks set to pass the Senate on partisan lines. (Griffith voted against the House’s version of the legislation.) “When a member of Congress decides to leave a 258-seat majority to join a deep minority,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, the party’s whip, in a statement, “it is a sure sign that the majority party has become completely disconnected from seniors, young workers and families in America.”

At the same time, conservatives in Washington and in Griffith’s district told TWI that they had serious reservations about backing a man who’d spent only 11 months as a House Democrat. In that time, they argue, Griffith’s votes against cap-and-trade, the economic stimulus package and the Lily Ledbetter Act were sullied by his votes for spending and earmarks. Phillip was not alone — all of Griffith’s Republican challengers have announced that they are not dropping out of the race. In a statement on Parker’s switch, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) notably neglected to swing the committee’s endorsement to the newest member of the House GOP conference.

“We’ve known for a long time that Parker Griffith’s principles are either for sale to the highest bidder or can change depending on how the poll results are looking,” said a spokesman for Mo Brooks, a county commissioner who’d gotten some early support from the NRCC, in an interview with Politico. “He seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth.”

The harsh reactions of Brooks and Phillip were in line with the reactions of activists in Alabama’s fifth congressional district.

“He’s an S.O.B.,” said Dale Jackson, a conservative radio host who’s posted a banner reading “Parker Griffith Cannot Be Trusted” on his Website. “He’s a liar. Michael Steele should be ashamed of himself. The NRCC should be ashamed of itself for not coming out and immediately repudiating this guy. He was unacceptable a year ago and he’s acceptable now? A year ago, they were saying this guy was a murderer.”

The “murder” charge that Jackson referred to came from ads that the NRCC ran in 2008, accusing Griffith of “warehousing” cancer patients and letting them suffer to increase his profits. Other Griffith critics, however, have focused on his voting record as a reason to support some other candidate in the GOP primary. Erick Erickson, editor of the influential RedState.com, posted a link to Griffith’s requested earmarks and challenged fellow conservatives to “pick this guy off and get a real Republican in that seat.” Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, reacted to the Griffith news with a blog post detailing how he’d voted to keep spending items in the stimulus package.

“It was a factual post,” Roth explained to TWI. “It was not stating any opinions, except that he’s not really that conservative for someone who claimed to be a conservative Blue Dog Democrat.” Griffith’s seat, said Roth, was “on the radar” of the fiscally conservative 527 before his decision, and it remained on the radar.

Activists back in Griffith’s district were pleased by the potential support for a challenge to Griffith. “Personally, I do not plan on supporting Parker Griffith,”hristie Carden, a lead organizer of Huntsville, Alabama’s Tea Party group. “I do not consider him a constitutional conservative, which is the beginning of my criteria for our next congressman. To earn my vote, Parker Griffith would need to start by convincing enough Democrats in the Senate or House to vote against ObamaCare and kill it. If he stops ObamaCare, Cap & Trade and other extreme socialist and detrimental agendas, I will consider voting for him.”

Brooklyn Roberts, an Alabama conservative activist, told TWI that Griffith was falling into a familiar role — that of the “big-government” politician who changes parties without changing stripes.

“I’d expect him to become another [Alabama Sen.] in terms of bringing pork home and spending,” said Burgess, referring to the senator who left the Democratic Party after the GOP’s 1994 sweep. “I think Griffith will hurt the conservatives who were running for this seat. If he wins I think he’ll become another big-government Republican we can’t get rid of.”

Steve Gordon, an Alabama conservative activist who worked on former Rep. Bob Barr’s (R-Ga.) Libertarian presidential bid last year, tentatively attacked Griffith, using some of the same language as Burgess. “What seems to be a GOP victory at first may well become another liberal victory in the long term,” Gordon wrote in a post for the Alabama Republican Liberty Caucus. “Unless Parker Griffith starts voting like a true fiscal conservative, Alabama could be stuck with another entrenched big-government Republican congressman.”

Griffith, who never faced an easy road to re-election in 2010, lacks some of the advantages of previous party-switchers. When Alexander switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 2004, he waited until hours before the candidate filing deadline to make the change. That deprived the blindsided Democrats of a chance to recruit a strong challenger. When Shelby made his switch in 1994, it was with the knowledge that Republicans were taking over the Senate and in the position to give him more influence. Griffith’s switch not only puts him in the minority; it pits him against an active and demanding Republican base that has made it clear throughout 2009 that candidates and incumbents needed to pass several tests to win their support.

“There’s two great candidates running against Griffith,” said Richard Barry, a conservative activist at the Liberty House, a hub of grassroots activism in Alabama-05. “He’d be my third choice.”

To win the votes of Alabama Republicans, Barry said that Griffith needed to bump up a “50/50″ voting record to a 90-percent conservative record, and to become more “aggressive about stopping the tyranny and the socialism.”

“If he’s out in front fighting the health care bill, I’d put my arms around him,” said Barry. “If he did a Joe Wilson — you know, ‘You Lie!’ — hey, we’d applaud him. If he pulled that we’d consider supporting him.”