A History Of Party-Switching Senators : It's All Politics With Sen. Arlen Specter's (D-PA) fate on the line in Tuesday's primary, a look at those senators who switched parties in the past half-century -- and how they fared the rest of their careers.
NPR logo Senators Who Switched Parties ... And Their Electoral Fate

Senators Who Switched Parties ... And Their Electoral Fate

Sen. Arlen Specter campaigns outside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Monday. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images hide caption

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William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Sen. Arlen Specter, who left the Republican Party in 2009 to become a Democrat after 29 years in the Senate, is facing a serious primary challenge today in Pennsylvania from Rep. Joe Sestak.

Charges of "opportunism" have been leveled against Specter, and while that might be fair, it's also rings a bit odd to me; what successful politician isn't opportunistic?  Had he stayed a Republican, Specter would have certainly fallen to Pat Toomey in today's GOP primary.

Plus, if we want to talk about opportunistic, how about someone like Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama?  Elected twice to the Senate as a conservative Democrat, Shelby switched to the Republican Party on Nov. 9, 1994 — exactly one day after the GOP won control of Congress.  By switching, Shelby remained in the majority.  That is opportunistic.

As it was, Shelby's move was strongly supported back home and it didn't affect his electoral success.  He won re-election as a Democrat in 1992 with 65 percent of the vote, and won two more terms as a Republican, with 63 percent in 1998 and 68 percent in 2004.  He remains extremely popular and is a shoo-in for a fifth term in November.

Specter is another story.  Sometimes his numbers are strong, like when he won a landslide victory in 1998.  And sometimes they're not; he barely survived in 1992, a result of the backlash of his grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and in 2004 he struggled both in the GOP primary and the general election.  And his career is on the line today.

Here is a look at the senators who switched parties in the past half century and how they fared the rest of their careers:

I'll start with Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, though he is on this list with an asterisk.  He didn't actually switch parties as much as he was booted out as a Democrat after he lost the 2006 primary to Ned Lamont.  Lieberman had won three times as a Democrat, and after he lost the '06 primary, ran and won as an independent.  He is considered an independent in the Senate, though he has never switched his party affiliation from the Democratic Party.

Before that the last party switcher was Jim Jeffords of Vermont.  Elected three times to the Senate as a Republican, Jeffords quit the GOP in 2001 to become an independent, aligned with the Democrats.  By switching, he turned the Senate from a 50-50 Republican-controlled body (thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Cheney) into a 51-49 Democratic chamber ... the only time a party switch affected control.  Jeffords never ran for office again, retiring in 2006.

Robert Smith of New Hampshire is another example of opportunism, maybe not so much his initial party switch as his switch back.  A conservative Republican whose bid for his party's 2000 presidential nomination was akin to the old tree/forest analogy, he announced on the Senate floor in July 1999 that he was so angry at the GOP he would become an independent.  He continued his White House aspirations as a third-party hopeful.  But then, after the death of John Chafee (R-RI), who chaired the Senate Environmental Committee, Smith returned to the GOP fold, and claimed that his seniority entitled him to be the next chairman.  The bizarre saga of switching and switching back played a major role in his defeat in the 2002 primary to Rep. John Sununu, who went on to win the seat.  Smith then moved to Florida and made two half-hearted attempts to win the GOP nomination for a Senate seat there.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat from Colorado, switched to the GOP on March 3, 1995, shortly after the Republicans took control of the Senate.  Campbell was probably too independent for either party's taste but that didn't hurt him at the polls.  In 1998, his first election since his switch, he easily won the Republican primary with some 71 percent of the vote, and in the general election he took more than 62 percent over his Democratic opponent.  He retired in 2004.

I already talked about Alabama's Shelby.  Before that was Harry Byrd Jr. of Virginia.  He followed his powerful father into state politics, winning a special election for his father's seat in 1966 as a Democrat.  Both father and son were strong conservatives.  By 1966, after decades of being dominated by the "Byrd Machine" led by his father, liberals were finally being heard in the Old Dominon.  Byrd Jr. struggled to win the Democratic primary that year, though the general election was much easier.  But in 1970, when the state party instituted a "loyalty oath" — insisting that its elected officials endorse the Democratic nominee — Byrd became an independent.  That year, and again in 1976, Byrd won re-election as an independent against serious Democratic and half-hearted Republican opposition.  He retired in 1982.

One more name to add, though he is a bit outside the "half-century" window.  Strom Thurmond was unbeatable in South Carolina.  A former governor and third-party presidential candidate, Thurmond was first elected to the Senate in 1954 — as a write-in candidate, no less — and won two subsequent elections, as a Democrat, without opposition.  In 1964, partly as a reaction to the civil rights legislation being pushed through Congress by President Johnson and the Democrats, he bolted to the GOP and endorsed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  The state Republican Party, virtually non-existent until then, welcomed him with open arms.  The only time he faced anything approaching a GOP primary battle came in his last campaign, in 1996, when he won 61 percent of the vote.  That year saw his closest general election contest as well: 53 percent against the appropriately named Democrat Elliott Close.