By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith dropped a big lump of coal in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Christmas stocking Tuesday when he announced he was joining the GOP. Griffith, a practicing physician and former member of the Alabama State Senate, came to Congress in 2008 by defeating Republican Wayne Parker 51.26 percent to 48.2 percent in a district where Republican John McCain beat Barack Obama by nearly 2-to-1. Griffith's decision to cross the aisle gives the Republicans a much needed boost, handing them control of a seat—across Alabama's northern tier—they have long coveted but never won.
The switch comes at a particularly bad time for Pelosi, who is busy trying to persuade the members of her caucus to once again vote in favor of a healthcare bill that the public neither likes nor, according to the latest polls, very much wants. In fact Griffith himself says what Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Pelosi want to do to the U.S. healthcare system is one of the primary reasons he is changing parties, according to a report that appeared in Politico.
There will be those who say that a switch of one seat—when the Democrats already have a roughly 40-seat majority in the House—is not that big a deal. Others will point to Griffith's record of voting against Pelosi on healthcare, the stimulus, the cap-and trade energy tax and the recent financial services regulation bill as a way of explaining this is not entirely unexpected and that Griffith was not a real Democrat. And some will breathlessly point out this seat—and no bets on who goes first here--is in the heart of the Old Confederacy and—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—draw your own conclusions.
All these are interesting observations—and all of them are beside the point.
With each congressional seat now costing in the millions to win or retain, losing one is always significant--but especially when it is the result of an act of conscience rather than vote totals. As they used to say about the folks who lived in East Berlin before the wall went up, Griffith's "voting with his feet," making a public declaration as to the party with which he wants to be associated.
Unlike the handful of congressmen and two senators who left the Democrats for the GOP after the 1994 elections, Griffith is not obviously leaving the losing side to join the winners. No one is as yet predicting the Republicans will regain control of the House at the next election. The GOP, under the leadership of Ohio Republican John Boehner may be on the bubble, but it's still an uphill fight for them to win back control and, at this point, every seat counts.
As to the point about the confederacy well, that's just a tired old argument from people who don't understand the new South and whose vision of victimization remains locked on to the times when that particular region of the country was reliably Democratic in its voting patterns. The people who make this argument, frankly, need to find some new observations or just go home.
Whether Griffith is "the canary in the coal mine," warning other Democrats that its time to get out, has yet to be seen. On paper he was doing everything required of him to be re-elected as a Democrat. His repeated votes against Pelosi, rather than make his re-election more difficult, actually should have benefited him next November. The district, which centers on the university town of Huntsville, is not a rural conservative seat. It is moderate and "new South" and, as political scientists Merle and Earl Black show in The Rise of Southern Republicans, moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the South--like Griffith and retiring Tennessee Reps. Bart Gordon and John Tanner--more easily win re-election in suburban districts by voting against the national leadership, not with it.