But there has been a Trump-inspired shift in the direction of party-switching in the United States. While for the better part of the past few decades, party-switching generally hurt Democrats and benefited the Republican Party — largely because of conservative Southern Democrats coming around to the GOP — these days, the movement is more leftward.
Ballotpedia has tracked party-switchers in state legislatures across the country since 1994. Over that span, 71 state lawmakers have switched from Democrat to Republican, while 18 have switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party. Only twice over that span have we had more Republicans switching to Democrat than Democrats switching Republican in consecutive years: the tail-end of George W. Bush’s presidency (2006-07) and the last two years of Trump’s.
But that’s still only a handful of switchers. Where we’ve seen a bigger shift is in Republican lawmakers who leave the party but don’t join the Democrats. While Ballotpedia records only one in the period between 1994 and 2015, since 2016, there have been 13. If you combine those who defected to the other party or for some other affiliation, 19 total lawmakers have left the GOP since 2016, while 15 have left the Democrats.
Not all of those GOP defectors blame Trump, of course, but a review of their stated reasons shows many of them do cite Trump. Several of them were rising Republican stars in tough states. Others were long-serving members who decided to take a stand.
McKean’s colleague in the Iowa legislature, now-former state senator David Johnson, switched to independent during the 2016 election over Trump’s “racist remarks and judicial jihad,” calling Trump a “bigot” for suggesting that the U.S.-born judge overseeing the Trump University case, Gonzalo Curiel, was biased because of his Mexican heritage.
California state Assemblyman Brian Maienschein cited a number of reasons for his party switch three months ago, but he made clear Trump was one of them. “I don’t even know where to begin,” he said of Trump. “His conduct has been very offensive really since the beginning. . . . his conduct was reprehensible, immature, counterproductive to what I believed was best for the country.”
Maienschein shares one characteristic with many party-switchers: They left state parties rife with discord. Such is also the case in Kansas, where four state lawmakers left the GOP for the Democrats in 2018. While state politics and a divide in the state GOP played a role there, at least two of them — state Sen. Barbara Bollier and state Rep. Stephanie Clayton — also cited Trump.
“I cannot be complicit in supporting that,” Bollier said of Trump. “I can’t call it leadership. I don’t even know what to call him. He is our president, but he is not representing my value system remotely.”
Some of the youngest rising stars in the GOP have also departed over Trump.
In Connecticut, Aundré Bumgardner won a state House seat at the age of 20 in 2014. Bumgardner, who is black, was hailed as “part of the next generation of leaders in our party” by the state GOP. But after losing in 2016, he announced last year that he had ditched the party over Trump’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville.
These three and other party-switchers notably come from states where their now-former party wields little power, which undoubtedly weighed on some of their decisions. It’s also notable that many of them switched after losing or didn’t go on to seek reelection. That’s why McKean’s switch in Iowa is more notable; he was leaving the majority party and intends to seek reelection in 2020 as a Democrat.
Outside of state legislatures, a number of party-switching politicians have also cited Trump, including former U.S. senator Gordon Humphrey (N.H.), former congressman Charles Djou (Hawaii), Honolulu City Councilor Kymberly Pyne, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, and former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods (a former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain).
Other Trump critics to leave the GOP include conservative columnist George Will, former congressman and current “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, a longtime aide to three Republican administrations, Peter Wehner, and a well-known GOP strategist and top adviser to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, Steve Schmidt.