Washington was abuzz over the weekend over the decision of Rep. Jeff Van Drew to leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans, precipitated by the Democratic House's impeachment of President Donald Trump. This was a historic move, and one likely not as knee-jerk (or single issue) as the press has been reporting.
In a November 27, 2019, post captioned "What Do Voters Really Think About Immigration? Interesting takeaways from a report apparently prepared for Democratic group", I wrote about a poll that had been purportedly commissioned by a group called "House Majority Forward", which I noted describes itself as "a progressive, non-profit organization committed to promoting economic growth and opportunity, social justice, environmental stewardship, and democracy in the United States of America."
I explained by way of background:
[T]he report purportedly covers the results of research on "two groups of White non-college voters", both male and female, from two congressional districts in New Jersey, NJ-02 (which covers the southern part of the state, currently represented in Congress by Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.)), and NJ-03 (in the middle of the state and cutting it in two, currently represented by Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.)).
Kim defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur by fewer than 4,000 votes in the 2018 election, while a well-financed Van Drew defeated Republican Seth Grossman by fewer than 20,000 votes in 2018 (there were four other contenders), in a race for the seat that had previously been held by Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
I noted that there was an interesting takeaway in the "Overview" section of the report:
Most of the respondents — across all of the groups — said they side with Trump on immigration. Almost to a person, immigration was described as a matter of bringing "control" to our borders and immigration system (the treatment of children at the border barely came up during the groups).
In fact, among the males surveyed, national security and immigration were more important than abortion rights and government spending, and the respondents did not mention impeachment or Syria until they were asked.
Logically, Van Drew had to have known of this report (not that I think he reads my column, but it focused on his district and the report received attention — but not a lot — elsewhere). Long story short, if that report is accurate, his constituents plainly supported the administration on immigration, but were not that interested in impeachment, positions directly at odds with Democratic party leadership.
Switching parties is not as common as one would think. Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.-3) switched from Republican to independent in July, but that was largely because he is a libertarian and believed that the GOP was no longer a party of "limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty", and because he was fed up with the two-party system, which he views as "an existential threat to American principles and institutions". It is doubtful that he would find a home in the current Democratic party — he has voted with the president's positions more often in the current 116th Congress (81.1 percent of the time) than he did in the last Congress (54.2 percent) — but he did vote to proceed with impeachment. He is more of a man without a party than a man in the wrong one.
Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.-5) opted to leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican almost a decade ago out of frustration with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House leadership. His switch was a bellwether for GOP successes in the 112th Congress (2011-2013), when the party won back control of the lower chamber. It didn't help Griffith much, though — he lost to Republican Mo Brooks in the ensuing primary, and then lost to him again in the next one.
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) switched from Republican to Democrat in 2009, all but giving the Democrats a supermajority in President Barack Obama's first term. It did not help him or the Democrats in the long-run, either: Specter lost the 2010 primary in a landslide to Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost the general election to Republican Pat Toomey.
Notably, as CNN reported at the time: "Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele ripped Specter, calling him a Republican in name only who was out of step with the rest of the party because of his 'left-wing voting record.'" I worked with his staff on legislation, and would have been a bit more charitable, but Steele was not entirely wrong.
Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) switched from Democrat to Republican in 1994, reflecting a trend in the South toward the GOP, as did Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) in 1995 following the defeat of a balanced-budget amendment that he supported and Democrats opposed. Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) switched from Republican to independent, caucusing with the Democrats and giving them control of the Senate in 2001. Jeffords' defection reflected a rift between moderates and conservatives in the GOP, and shifting allegiances in the Green Mountain State.
It is difficult to view Van Drew's switch as anything other than a rejection of the Democratic party's positions on many issues, including immigration. I gave plenty of caveats about the validity of the House Majority Forward survey in my November post, but one particular finding resounded with me: "When asked what Congress should try to work with Trump to achieve, immigration was the dominant response — and as we heard in the beginning of the conversation, that would mean controlling immigration."
There are real problems at the border that the president has identified on numerous occasions, but Democrats in power and their supporters in the media seemed to be oblivious to them until they were undeniable. Even then, their responses were largely just a rehash of the positions they had taken before, and an effort to deflect blame on to the president.
For example, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) blamed President Trump's "'refusal to move forward' on comprehensive immigration reform as 'contributing to that humanitarian crisis'", while at the same time asserting that "'there's a lot we could do jointly and should do jointly' in Congress ... to address the border situation." Of course, no such legislation has been forthcoming, despite the president's stated willingness to reach a deal.
There is a saying on Capitol Hill: "When you stop representing your constituents, soon you will stop representing your constituents." Jeff Van Drew has learned this lesson. Immigration propelled Donald Trump to the White House. For the sake of the now 30 Democratic House members in seats the president won in the 2016 election, and her own speakership, Nancy Pelosi should learn this lesson on immigration as well.