Some Suburban State Lawmakers Are Leaving the GOP

Since the midterm elections, Republican legislators in California, Kansas and New Jersey have switched to the Democratic party.
by | January 29, 2019 AT 4:50 PM
California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, center, receives applause from Democratic Assembly members after announcing he was leaving the GOP. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

SPEED READ:

  • In the last month, Republican state lawmakers Brian Maienschein of California, Dawn Marie Addiego of New Jersey, and Dinah Sykes, Stephanie Clayton and Barbara Bollier of Kansas announced that they were switching to the Democratic Party.
  • They all represent suburban districts that have become increasingly Democratic.
 

Dawn Marie Addiego has had a long career in Republican politics, serving on the Evesham Township City Council, the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the New Jersey Assembly and, since 2010, the state Senate.

On Monday, Addiego switched to the Democratic Party.

"My core values that originally drew me to the Republican Party have not changed," Addiego wrote on a social media post announcing her switch, "but the party which once echoed the vision of Ronald Reagan no longer exists."

Addiego isn't alone. Last week, California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein left the GOP and became a Democrat. Last month, three Kansas legislators made the same move.

All these switchers represent suburban districts that have become increasingly Democratic, particularly since the election of Donald Trump as president.

"There's enough discontent among Republicans, particularly women in the suburbs, that makes a switch to the Democratic Party plausible among Republican legislators," says Timothy Nokken, a Texas Tech University political scientist who has studied party switching.

Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist, echoes that sentiment.

"In the districts that they occupy, they're going to be electorally safer as Democrats," he says, referring to the switchers in his state. "They're all in districts that have trended hard to the Democratic Party."

 

Where the GOP Is Struggling

Maienschein's switch means San Diego's entire delegation in the state Assembly is now Democratic. Republicans lost their last Assembly seat in the San Francisco Bay area during the midterm elections. With Maienschein's defection, Republicans now hold just 19 of the 80 seats in the California Assembly.

The party suffered similar wipeouts in suburban districts from Austin to Seattle to Charlotte, N.C. In New Jersey, Addiego's move leaves the GOP with 14 of the 40 seats in the New Jersey Senate -- its lowest total since 1981. 

Blaming the party for morphing into something they could no longer support -- as Addiego did -- is typical for party switchers. "He didn't leave the Republican Party, the party left him," Chad Mayes, a former GOP leader in the California Assembly, said in defense of Maienschein.

Miller, the Kansas professor, says Trump's presidency has accelerated trends that were already taking place, including the movement of college-educated white voters away from the GOP.

It's an effect that has already taken place, in reverse, in the South. What was once a solidly Democratic region has turned overwhelmingly Republican in recent decades. Under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it became increasingly difficult for conservative Democrats to win in the South. They were unable to separate their own political fortunes from perceptions of their national party.

"What happens at the top of the ticket has a downstream effect on what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican," says Antoine Yoshinaka, author of Crossing the Aisle: Party Switching by U.S. Legislators in the Postwar Era. "We can't underestimate the effect of the president on the party brand and what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat."

Twenty years ago, it was a common occurrence for the Republican National Committee (RNC) to issue news releases bragging about the latest Southern Democrat to join the GOP.

"I remember vividly, when I was working at the RNC, we were very alert to every Democrat who came over to the Republican side," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

But just as Democrats now have little hope in most of the South, the GOP's chances are weak in certain coastal states, big cities, college towns and, to an increasing extent, affluent suburbs around the country.

 

The Motivations and Consequences of Switching Parties

Until just the other day, California Republicans had pointed to Maienshein's midterm success as an example of how the state party could rebuild. He was able to build a "brand" that was seen as separate from Trump. The reality, however, is that he won in November by just 607 votes, out of nearly 200,000 cast.

"He is switching parties for self-preservation and political games," says Tony Krvaric, who chairs the San Diego County GOP. Similar complaints have been lodged against the other recent switchers.

Politicians willing to switch parties are often welcomed and even wooed by their prospective new party, offered plum committee assignments and financial resources. But it's a risky bet.

They are certain to be derided by members of their old party, while often viewed with suspicion by voters, who question their fealty. Already, a Facebook page has been set up in hopes of recalling Sen. Addiego for switching.

"A lot of switchers do get punished by voters who aren't particularly fond of politicians who switch sides," says Yoshinaka, who is also a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. "As an act of self-preservation, it's not always the most effective one."

But if you're an elected official in coastal California, or one of the many other areas that have come under single-party dominance, there may be no other realistic choice if you want to keep winning elections. Republicans not only lost every statewide race last year in California, but they failed to break the 40 percent mark in any of those contests. The GOP held onto just eight of the state's 53 U.S. House seats. The party now occupies zero of the seven House seats from Orange County, a bastion of the conservative movement in Reagan's day.

"In California, I won't say the Republican Party is dead, but clearly it's a diminished party," Nokken says. "Any hope for Republicans outside of solid GOP constituencies is really tenuous."

In New Jersey, Republicans now hold just one of the state's dozen U.S. House seats.

Although the Kansas electorate remains solidly Republican, Democrats won 10 of the state House seats from Johnson County, outside of Kansas City, up from just two as recently as 2014. The legislators who defected in Kansas are all from Johnson County.

"Just as we saw more conservative Democrats die out in rural areas, we're seeing moderate Republicans die out in suburban areas," says Miller, the Kansas professor.

Moderate Republicans who represent districts where voters are dubious about Trump have to wonder about the president's potential negative coattails in 2020.

"I don't think there will be huge numbers of party switchers, if only because there aren't that many moderate Trump skeptics in office," says Pitney, who left the GOP in response to Trump's election. "Some will switch, some will leave office, some will be defeated."

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