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If A Candidate Switches Parties, Do DelVal Voters Care?

GOP attorney general candidate Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware) wants primary voters to know he’s a loyal, lifelong Republican.

And based on how often he mentions it in his campaign, he really wants GOP voters to know that his opponent, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, isn’t.

“I’m a Republican. I have been my whole life,” Williams said last month during a televised debate. “My opponent changed his party when he was 37 years old, and I can say that I have never voted for Obama and Joe Biden.”

And Williams’ campaign manager Mark Campbell told DVJournal that Sunday’s “troubling record on public safety, evidenced by York’s murder rate surpassing Philadelphia’s, casts doubt on the authenticity of his 2013 switch to the Republican Party.”

But Sunday, not Williams, received the endorsement of the Pennsylvania state GOP. And then there’s the bigger question: Do Pennsylvania politicians pay a price for being party switchers?

Craig Snyder should know. He worked for one of the Keystone State’s most high-profile affiliation flippers, the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter.

Snyder says Sunday’s switch could be a problem in the primary.

“Given Pennsylvania’s archaic and unfair closed primary system, the vast majority of the small number of voters who participate in primaries are the hyper-partisans in each of our two major parties. Unsurprisingly, those voters are hostile to party switchers. They prize team and ideological loyalty above all else, and that makes accepting even a convert to the cause unappealing.”

Specter abandoned a long career as a Republican and joined the Democratic Party in 2009 after polls showed, as National Review political reporter Jim Geraghty put it at the time, “former Congressman Pat Toomey would beat him like a drum in a GOP primary.”

Instead, Specter used the backing he got from the biggest names in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to go on and lose the Democratic primary instead.

“Sen. Specter’s experience with party-switching should serve as a flashing red light to others who might consider the same course. He had the assurances of the president, the vice president, the governor of Pennsylvania, and the mayor of Philadelphia—all Democrats—that he would be unchallenged in the Democratic primary. Of course, that’s not what happened, and it ended a long and historic career.”

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, agreed with Snyder’s characterization of primary voters.

“Those voters that engage in party primaries are often the most passionate members of the party, with their party identity often an important aspect of their overall identity,” said Borick. “Thus, a candidate who is a relative newcomer to the party may have a higher bar to get over to win the support of longtime party members.”

“The candidates who do switch parties often have to build a strong case for why they switched parties, especially if it was a relatively recent change, and why they should be trusted. These ‘switchers’ sometimes compensate for their newcomer status by being more intense in their campaign rhetoric to signal their credibility with the primary audience,” Borick added.

Temple University political science Professor Robin Kolodny also mentioned Specter when asked about candidates who change parties.

“The answer is: it depends,” said Kolodny. Who else is running in the primary? What are the dynamics in the region or country about the parties? In Pennsylvania, party switching worked poorly for Sen. Arlen Specter when he switched from Republican to Democrat. In New Jersey, Rep. Jeff Van Drew was just fine when he switched from Democrat to Republican.”

Christopher Nicholas with the Eagle Consulting Group said, “I’d say it depends on their personal story. Both Reagan and Trump changed parties during their careers.”

Sunday told DVJournal he was raised a “blue dog” (AKA “conservative”) Democrat who began to disagree with the Democrats as he worked as a prosecutor.

“When I became a prosecutor—I mean, this was a long time coming for me—I realized that conservative principles were what I believed and would make our community safer and healthier. And just like a lot of people, I evolved in my thinking.”

Quantum Communications CEO Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant, said switching parties may or may not hurt a candidate.

“It really depends on how long ago they switched parties and what they’ve done since. A very recent switch will hurt a candidate far more than one that happened long ago. More than one switch is a much bigger problem for the switcher,” said Gerow.

But Gerow noted it never hurt Philadelphian Joe Rocks.

Rocks was elected as a Republican to the Pennsylvania House in 1979. He switched parties in 1982 and was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate. He then switched back to Republican and served in the Senate from 1988 to 1990. As a result, he served in all four caucuses in the state legislature.

“Not many can do what Joe Rocks did,” said Gerow.


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