Republican Realignment: Why Politicians Switch Parties

Aug 21, 2013

State Sen. Rick Ward is dropping out of the race for Louisiana's Sixth Congressional District. According to The Times-Picayune, Ward's changed his mind because the position would require too much time away from his children. This decision comes three weeks after announcing his candidacy, and a month after switching to the Republican party in mid-July.

Many accused Ward of switching parties because he wanted to run for the higher seat. Ward said he switched because the "R" behind his name would better represent his views.

Ward's conversion cemented Republican control in the state Senate, handing the GOP a two-thirds supermajority. Ward said he's always identified as a conservative Democrat, but has had trouble reaching out to conservative voters.

The national Democratic Party platform does outline beliefs in women’s right to choose, marriage equality, and stricter gun laws. But State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who also chairs the state Democratic Party, said the Louisiana party isn't so strict.

“There’s no one shape or form that a democrat comes in," Peterson said. "What I like about the Democratic Party is that there’s room at the table for everyone, and that we have a table that welcomes those with different view points. It's healthy diverse views that make our party great.”

Democratic candidate for governor, Rep. John Bel Edwards exemplifies the tug of social conservative values in Louisiana on his party in his campaign video. He devotes the first few minutes to emphasizing his church-going habits, ingrained in him by his parents, and his talent with a rifle.

Last session, when Ward was still a democrat, the Louisiana Family Forum awarded him a 100 percent favorable rating, meaning his votes aligned with the socially conservative Christian views the group represents.

“[Voters] automatically think you are against them owning their guns, you’re for abortion, you’re for gay marriage,” Ward said. “These are things, if you have a ‘D’ by your name, in Louisiana, those are the first three things you have to deal with.”

Ward said his affiliation didn’t matter until he ran for office.

“It really never made a difference to me, it never made a difference in how I voted in elections. It never made a difference on how I thought on issues," Ward said. "I guess until I became an elected official and you got labeled one way or the other based on your party affiliation, it just never mattered to me.”

Kirby Goidel, a political communication’s professor at LSU, said this apathy for party labels is common among politicians. He said there are three reasons politicians switch parties: to get the job, to do the job, and to keep the job.

“You know, these politicians are often ambitious, as they approach politics, they may care less about political party than a lot of people do," Goidel said. "What they’re looking at is: what do I need to run as in order to win in this district? And having won, what do I need to do in order to maintain this district, or what’s my next step that I need to think about?”

House Rep. Jim Fannin also jumped the aisle to the Republican side recently. He’s nearing the end of his term-limit in the House. Coincidentally, Republican Sen. Robert Kolstelka, whose district corresponds with Fannin’s, is also nearing the end of his term-limit. The switch sets Fannin up to run for Kolstelka’s seat.

Switching to the more prominent party would logically make it easier to get legislation through, Goidel said, if one’s own agenda can be paper-clipped to the party’s agenda as a whole.

“[Politicians] want to serve their communities, and they want to have policy influence," Goidel said. "Even if you look at the level of projects, and bringing them back to the local district, even if you look at it at that level, I can do something to help my constituents by doing that. Then the question is, how best do I do that?”

Goidel says it’s easier to switch, than it is to fight.