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The Seismic Result of Jeffords's Decision
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 25, 2001

Question: Now that Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords has left the GOP to become an independent, is he likely to be wooed by both parties, or completely ignored?
– Mark Matthews, Milwaukee, Wisc.

Answer: It’s too soon to tell, especially because Washington is still trying to get over the shock of his party switch. When you think of the tens of millions of dollars that were spent last year by both parties to win control of the Senate, it is unfathomable that what changed the balance of power was the decision of one senator. And no one is really sure if the shock waves have subsided. Is anyone else (Lincoln Chafee? Zell Miller? John McCain?) planning to jump? And with the Democrats now having a one-seat advantage, the focus is less on the health of Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and more on the longevity of Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who is facing a serious ethics inquiry.

Jeffords has been on the outs with GOP leaders since he first came to Congress. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

My guess is that Jeffords will be shunned by the White House and the Republicans, who will not be quick to forgive, to say the least. This is not like the defections to the GOP of Alabama’s Richard Shelby and Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell in the mid-1990s. Those switches simply added to the Republican majority. Similarly, when Thurmond bolted in ’64, he simply reduced the Democrats’ majority from 67 to 66 seats.

On the other hand, Jeffords’ act conceivably could change the entire dynamic in Washington. It changes every Senate committee chair, committee ratios and staff, not to mention the legislative agenda or prospects for the Bush administration’s judicial nominations. Some Republicans argue that Jeffords’ influence could actually wane, since the Democrats got what they wanted, and that the White House may be less inclined to lavish attention on the three-term Vermonter. But others counter that had the White House paid even the slightest attention to Jeffords, the Republicans wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in now.

After years of watching Democrats switch to the GOP, the Democrats are finding it hard to contain their glee. When then-Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) left the GOP in 1999, Democratic House leaders in Washington went out of their way to show off their new trophy. But Democratic voters back home refused to embrace the conservative Forbes, who failed to survive his September 2000 primary contest against a 71-year old political unknown.

Jeffords does not have the same concerns. A very popular figure in the state, it would not be a stretch to sell him to Democratic voters (as it was with Forbes in New York). Jeffords has had an independent voting record since he came to Congress in 1975, and his success at the polls has nothing to do with his party label. Having won a third term last year, he is not up until 2006. He may or may not run again, or he may seek the governorship next year. In any event, his state’s voters may react to his declaration of independence with pride. And so, while the Republican right wing in the state is no doubt glad to see him go, the real meaning of Jeffords’ move will be felt in Washington, not Vermont.

Question: How many senators have shifted parties while in office? Has a senator’s party switch ever affected the balance of power in the Senate?
– Daniel Metraux, Staunton, Va.

Morse also left the GOP to become an independent, but held off from giving the Dems control of the Senate. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: Since the direct election of senators in 1913, 11 senators have changed parties while in office, but never has a defection been as profound as Jeffords’s. None of the previous ten resulted in changing the Senate’s balance of power.

The nearest comparison to today’s situation involves Oregon’s Wayne Morse. Morse, an early backer of Dwight Eisenhower for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination, soured on Ike as the campaign wore on, especially after his post-convention embracing of conservative Senate Republican leader Robert Taft (R-Ohio). On. Oct. 18, 1952, Morse endorsed Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson, and six days later he resigned from the Republican Party and declared himself an independent. That year, the GOP picked up two Senate seats, giving them a 48-47 advantage in the Senate.

In 1953, Taft died and was replaced by a Democrat, shifting the numeric advantage to the Dems. Had Morse decided to vote with the Democrats to organize the Senate, the Dems would have recaptured control. But the Oregon maverick said he would vote with the GOP to keep Republicans in control if the matter came up, stating that the voters would have their say on the matter in ’54. The Democrats did regain control in the 1954 elections, and Morse made his pact with the Dems official three months later.

Here are the 11 senators who switched:
   • Jim Jeffords (Vt.) – R to I, 5/24/01
   • Bob Smith (N.H.) – R to I, 7/13/99; I to R, 11/1/99
   • Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) – D to R, 3/3/95
   • Richard Shelby (Ala.) – D to R, 11/9/94
   • Harry Byrd Jr. (Va.) – D to I, 3/17/70
   • Strom Thurmond (S.C.) – D to R, 9/16/64
   • Wayne Morse (Ore.) – R to I, 10/24/52; I to D, 2/17/55
   • Henrik Shipstead (Minn.) – Farmer-Labor to R, 1940
   • George Norris (Neb.) – R to I, 1936
   • Robert La Follette Jr. (Wisc.) – R to Progressive, 1934; Progressive to R, 3/17/46
   • Miles Poindexter (Wash.) – R to Progressive, 1913; Progressive to R, 1915

Question: Although it is highly unlikely, can the president or vice president switch parties while in office like a senator or congressman can?
– Kim Piros, Mesa, Ariz.

Answer: Theoretically they could. But while a member of Congress like Jim Jeffords could switch because he doesn’t like the direction his president is taking, the president is the titular head of his party. Like it or not, Bill Clinton WAS the Democratic party during his eight years in office, as was Ronald Reagan for the GOP during his two terms. There would be no reason for them to switch.

Question: In a Parliamentary system of government, Cabinet experience (or at least shadow cabinet) is essential to becoming prime minister. Not so here. When was the last time we had a president who had experience in the Cabinet? The first President Bush was CIA Director; Cabinet-level rank but not really the Cabinet.
– James Woodson, San Diego, Calif.

Answer: The last president with Cabinet experience – and one of the few who never ran for public office before assuming the presidency – was Herbert Hoover. He served as secretary of commerce under both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. Six presidents were secretaries of state: Thomas Jefferson (under George Washington), James Madison (under Jefferson), James Monroe (under Madison), John Quincy Adams (under Monroe), Martin Van Buren (under Andrew Jackson), and James Buchanan (under both James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor). In addition, Monroe, Ulysses Grant and William Howard Taft served as secretaries of war.

Question: I am a reference librarian and have been attempting to find an answer for a student for some time now. I am hoping your extensive knowledge will be able to help him complete his project as I have hit a dead-end. He has been told by one of his professors that there have been four successful write-in candidates sent to Congress. I can find Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), and former Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.), but not a fourth. I have combed every resource our small university owns, checked "people resources" who might know, and the ever-present Internet, with no luck.
– Judith Downie, California State University, San Marcos, Calif.

Tension over the Little Rock school crisis gave Alford his write-in win in '58. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: In 1958, Dr. Dale Alford, a segregationist member of the Little Rock school board, was elected as a write-in candidate against Rep. Brooks Hays (D-Ark.). Alford’s victory was a huge upset, given the fact that he launched his campaign only a week before the election.

Hays’s undoing was his attempt to mediate the standoff between the federal government and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus (D) over the integration of Little Rock’s schools. His efforts were resented by Faubus, whose allies were behind Alford’s campaign. After the election, Alford aligned himself with the Democrats and won re-election in 1960, but he gave up his seat in 1962 to seek the governorship. He finished third in a four-candidate Democratic primary field, which was topped by Faubus.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin


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