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Party-Swappers Past and Present
Sen. James Jeffords
Sen. James Jeffords


Web Links:
Senate Historical Office
Sen. Jeffords' Web site

May 24, 2001 -- The position in which Sen. James Jeffords finds himself -- able to swing the Senate from Republican to Democratic control simply by changing his own party affiliation -- is unprecedented, says Senate historian Richard Baker. "We've never had a situation where one member changing party has therefore formally changed the control of the Senate and moved it from one party to another."

However, since the late 1800s, 18 U.S. senators have broken with one party and allied with another, according to the Senate Historical Office. The party-swappers have been motivated by issues as weighty as whether the nation should adopt the gold standard, enter the second World War or desegregate schools -- and as personal as whether they're slighted by party mates or denied plum assignments.

In the past 50 years, a half dozen senators -- four of whom are still in office -- have switched parties. Below, read excerpts from the Senate Historical Office account of the defections, with commentary from NPR Washington Editor Ronald Elving and NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin. And listen as All Things Considered host Robert Siegel audio buttontalks with Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley about politicians switching parties. And join our discussion on Jeffords' move.


Wayne Morse began his political career as an Oregon Republican, but in 1953 he listed himself as an Independent after a decade in the Senate. Not knowing precisely where to sit, Morse set up a folding chair in the center aisle where he had to endure snide jabs from his former GOP colleagues. Read more.

Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican party in 1964 in opposition to the civil rights bill and in support of candidate Barry Goldwater. But didn't have much influence as a Republican from South Carolina, a state where the small GOP organization was described as "a telephone-booth party." Read more.

Harry F. Byrd, Jr. was another Southern Democrat who defected over civil rights. But the Virginian became an Independent in opposition to a loyalty oath that would have restricted his presidential choice in 1972. Byrd said he would not be a "captive senator." Read more.

Richard Shelby jumped the Democratic ship the day after the Republicans seized control of the Senate in 1994. He got to keep his eight-year seniority status AND enjoy his new party's majority status. Read more.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell joined up with the Republicans in 1995, less than two years after he was elected as a Colorado Democrat. The Harley-riding Native American was always considered a bit of a maverick on Capitol Hill and has not much changed his voting record since the switch. Read more.

Bob Smith gets particular notice because he changed parties twice -- in one year. The New Hampshire Republican became an Independent in 1999 but returned to the fold a few months later. The fleeting flirtation came after his complaints over the GOP's treatment of his 2000 presidential bid. Read more.


former Sen. Wayne Morse
Former Sen. Wayne Morse

Wayne Morse of Oregon
(Republican, 1945-1953; Independent, 1953-1955; Democrat, 1955-1969)

An expert on law and labor arbitration, Wayne Morse worked for the Attorney General and the Secretary of Labor before Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the National Labor Board in 1942. Despite his close association with Roosevelt and the New Deal, Morse began his political career as an Oregon Republican. He beat the GOP Senate incumbent in the primary and won the general election.

As a freshman senator, he was assigned to numerous committees, including Armed Services and the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, chaired by Robert Taft in the following Congress. In 1947, Morse surprised Republicans by challenging Taft on the Taft-Hartley bill, which placed restrictions on labor unions' right to strike and organize.

Shortly after his reelection in 1950, Morse criticized economic measures favored by most Republican members. Rebuffed by his colleagues at the Republican National Convention, he cast an absentee ballot for Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 Democratic presidential candidate. At that time, Morse resigned from the Republican party and started campaigning for Stevenson.

When the 83rd Congress commenced in 1953, Morse listed himself as an independent. As the only non-affiliated member on the Senate floor, he did not know where to sit, and set up a folding chair in the aisle between the Republican and Democratic sections. After he settled on the Republican side of the aisle, Morse apparently had to endure snide comments from GOP senators whenever he stood to speak.

On February 17, 1955, Morse joined the Democratic party, and helped the Democrats control the Senate. The new majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, assigned Morse to a coveted spot on the Foreign Relations Committee. As a Democrat, he received retroactive seniority dating to November 8, 1954, and was reelected to the Senate in 1956 and in 1962. In 1964, Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening were the only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, intensifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That vote, coupled with Morse's decision to back Eugene McCarthy's unpopular anti-war campaign, hurt Morse's reelection efforts in 1968. He narrowly won the Democratic Senate primary, and lost the general election to Republican state representative Bob Packwood.

RUDIN: "He was really angry with the right wing of the Republican Party, that they were not reining in Joe McCarthy."


Sen. Strom Thurmond
Sen. Strom Thurmond

Strom Thurmond of South Carolina
(Independent Democrat, 1954-1956; Democrat, 1956-1964; Republican, 1964-present)

Thurmond met with the Democratic Conference from his arrival in the Senate, although he made clear that his election in 1954 had not been aided by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (In April 1956 he resigned and ran again for his seat that November as a Democrat.) He was still attending Democratic Conferences as late as August 1964, but changed to the Republican party on September 16, 1964.

In the 88th Congress (1963-1965), Thurmond was the seventh ranked Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and the fourth on Commerce. In the 89th Congress (1965-1967), after his switch, he was the third ranking Republican on both Armed Services and Banking and Currency, indicating that his seniority status was maintained.

RUDIN: "When Thurmond switched, it was completely ideology, based on his opposition to the civil rights bill and his support for the Goldwater candidacy."

ELVING: "It was clearly not for power, he was giving up his chance to be a chairman or anything else because there were no other official Republicans in South Carolina at the time, it was described as a telephone-booth party."


Sen. Harry F. Byrd
Former Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr.
courtesy Howell Press

Harry F. Byrd, Jr. of Virginia
(Democrat, 1965-1971; Independent, 1971-1983)

Harry F. Byrd, Jr. followed his father into successful careers in apple farming, newspaper publishing, and Virginia politics. A former state senator, he was appointed to Harry F. Byrd, Sr.'s Senate seat when the elder Byrd retired in poor health in 1965. Campaigning as a Democrat one year later, he won the election for the four years remaining on his father's term.

In 1970, Byrd announced that he was leaving the Democratic party to become an Independent member of the Senate. Earlier, he had objected to a loyalty oath administered by Virginia's Democratic Central Committee. While the oath only applied to that year's general election, it may have restricted Byrd's choice for the president in 1972. Not wanting to be a "captive senator," he considered himself forced out of the Democratic party.

Political commentators suggested, however, that Byrd left the party because he no longer commanded Virginia's Democratic base. As an Independent, they argued, Byrd could attract a wider electorate without having to face a challenger in the upcoming primary election.

Calling himself both an Independent and an Independent Democrat, Byrd won the six-year Senate term in the fall of 1970. In 1976, Virginia voters elected him to a third term by a large margin. Byrd decided not to seek a fourth term, and retired from the Senate on January 3, 1983.

RUDIN: "His father had been Mr. Democratic Party of Virginia -- so his party switch just showed how the South was changing. When Byrd switched, the Democratic Party was no longer the kind of party he recognized."

ELVING: "And that again was a case of a party switch motivated by a stance on civil rights legislation."


Sen. Richard Shelby
Sen. Richard Shelby
Richard Shelby of Alabama
(Democrat, 1987-1994; Republican, 1994-present)

Richard Shelby left the Democratic party on November 9, 1994 to join the Republican party (which had just gained majority status in the recent election). He maintained his 8-year seniority status when he switched parties.

RUDIN: "He switched the day after the election in 1994 when the Republicans took control of the Senate. In other words, he wanted to stay with the majority at all costs. But his voting record hasn't changed since his party affiliation did."

ELVING: "This was clearly a guy who felt more comfortable all along with whatever the conservative party was. The last reason for him to remain a Democrat was to be a committee chairman -- and the GOP victory in 1994 eliminated that."


Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado
(Democrat, 1993-1995; Republican, 1995-present)

Ben Nighthorse Campbell left the Democratic party on March 3, 1995, and joined the majority Republican party. His seniority was maintained. Campbell announced his defection with the somewhat ambiguous statement, "I can no longer represent the agenda that is put forth by the party, although I certainly agree with many of the things that Democrats stand for." Political analysts contended that his choice was motivated less by ideological differences than by conflicts with Colorado Democrats, including a public feud with a former top aide about personal finances.

ELVING: "He's not your average member -- we're talking about a Native American guy with a ponytail who comes to Congress on a Harley."

RUDIN: "He was always a maverick, a quirky kind of guy, and then he had some kind of skirmish with the Democrats back home. So he announced his party switch, but said he wouldn't change his voting record, and essentially he has not."


Sen. Bob Smith
Sen. Bob Smith
Bob Smith of New Hampshire
(Republican, 1990-July 13, 1999; Independent, July 13, 1999-November 1, 1999; Republican, November 1, 1999-present)

Smith left the Republican party on July 13, 1999, becoming an Independent. Just a few months later, on November 1, 1999, he announced his return to the Republican party, noting that, since his home town in New Hampshire had not yet changed his voter registration, he had technically never left the Republican party.

Smith's return to the Republican party coincided with the death of Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee, whose chairmanship of the Environment committee was then given to Smith.

ELVING: "When he left it was a 55-45 split in the Senate, in favor of the Republicans, so there was nowhere near the kind of tension there is now. His leaving was seen as an act of personal pique at how he was treated in the presidential campaign. And he returned to the fold upon the death of Chafee, which opened up a chairmanship he was in line to have -- that was enough to lure him back."

RUDIN: "But the defection has hurt him with voters; if he loses next year's primary, it may be because of the party switch."


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