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Party Hoppers

"It’d be like someone standing at the Alamo going, ‘I’m not gonna survive this thing,’ and all of a sudden he jumps up and starts speaking Spanish!" says Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris. Maybe so, but switching parties usually works out.

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When state Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, hung up the phone, there was no indication that his friend and fellow Democrat, Jacksonville state Rep. Chuck Hopson, was so close to a major lifestyle change.

“I will be running as a Republican in 2010,” Hopson announced the next afternoon, “and will campaign hard to win the Republican primary and general elections.”

Representing a district that went 71 percent for Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election, Hopson was counted — along with McReynolds — among a small group of conservative rural Democrats in the Texas House who a cursory demographic analysis would suggest are ripe for the picking.

Crosbyton Rep. Joe Heflin, the lone Democrat from the Panhandle, will not be switching parties, though he told the Amarillo Globe-News that he was “flattered” by efforts of Republicans like Carl Isett of Lubbock to convince him otherwise.

Many Democrats similarly situated — most of them members of the moderate 20/20 PAC — face pressure and temptation to succumb to their districts' political currents, yet they are not hurrying to follow Hopson's lead.  “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mull it over back in the early days,” says fellow member Mark Homer, D-Paris, currently aiming for a seventh term, who remembers first being approached by Republican operatives in 2003. “But, it’d be like someone standing at the Alamo going, ‘I’m not gonna survive this thing,’ and all of a sudden he jumps up and starts speaking Spanish!”

“You’ve got to hold your ground in our business,” says a less understanding McReynolds, who believes Republicans know better than to aim overtures his way. “I don’t know why Chuck did what he did.”

Perhaps Hopson peeked at his Texas history books and noticed that the people that jump up to join the opposition generally land on their feet.

Ronald Reagan, himself a Democrat-turned Republican, started the modern round of party switching in Texas. The new Republican president turned to two Texas Democrats — Phil Gramm and Kent Hance — in Congress in 1981 to pass his tax and budget plans. Gramm got reelected as a Republican in 1983.  Hance switched officially in 1985 and ultimately achieved electoral success with his new party in a 1988 race for Railroad Commissioner. He's now the chancellor of Texas Tech University System.

The yanking of Gramm’s coattails eventually spun a young Democrat named Rick Perry 180 degrees.  As a Republican, he became agriculture commissioner in 1990, then served as lieutenant governor, and is now the state’s longest-serving governor.

Anita Hill of Garland, Ray Keller of Duncanville, George Pierce of San Antonio, and Charlie Evans of Fort Worth all traded in donkey ears for elephant tusks in the 1980s. The late Ric Williamson switched from the Democrats to the Republicans after the 1995 session.

Warren Chisum of Pampa switched parties after the 1997 session, but stuck with House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat and fellow resident of the Panhandle, until Tom Craddick became speaker in 2003. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and Delwin Jones of Lubbock both took time off after time served as Democrats before their current Republican reincarnations.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall switched parties in 2004, after redistricting changed the composition of his already conservative district.  He had been a Democrat since first winning the office of Rockwall County Judge in 1950.

The wind can blow the other way, too. Kirk England of Grand Prairie jumped from the Republicans to the Democrats after one session in the Legislature, saying he felt Craddick and the Republicans were forcing him to vote the party line even when going the other way would be better for his district.

All in all, switching usually works — but just because you get invited to the party doesn’t guarantee that people will dance with you.

Hopson has surely been advised to heed the cautionary tale of Greg Laughlin, a Democratic congressman from West Columbia who won four elections as a Democrat and then switched to the Republican ticket before the 1996 race. He had all the endorsements and backing — including that of then-Gov. George W. Bush — but he lost the GOP primary to Ron Paul. The lesson, which Chuck Hopson is working on today, is that a flipper is most vulnerable in the first primary after the flip.

“Today, especially, it’s so mean and angry,” says Homer.  “You listen to all those idiots on cable television, and they keep throwing gas on the fire.  For someone who switches, it’s made that uphill climb that much more difficult.”

Hopson may have the backing of prominent Republicans from Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, but that didn’t stop Michael Banks, a Jacksonville dentist and tea-stained conservative, from rushing to play the Joe Sestak to Hopson’s Arlen Specter — signaling his intent to challenge Hopson in the Republican primary just hours after the switch.  “I'm a better Republican than Chuck because he's been a Democrat," Banks said. Banks said the GOP wins whether he or Hopson comes out of the primary and there's no reason for the outside Republicans to get involved. "They don't have a dog in this fight."

When it comes to party hopping, one thing that’s even easier than drawing a new primary challenger is losing old friends.  Joanna Reagan, president elect of Texas Democratic Women, called on Hopson to return donations (including her own) he recently solicited from Democrats.  He had to turn over his badge and gun to the 20/20 PAC, which released a statement saying, “We are profoundly disappointed by his decision.” That was nothing compared to Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie’s charge that Hopson, among other things, lacks “intestinal fortitude.”

Stakes are high. The 2011 session will be a redistricting year, and which party controls the Texas House will bear strongly on the outcome.  Hopson’s switch may widen the power gap, which had shrunk to a mere two-seat advantage in the Republicans’ favor, to an unbridgeable point for his former colleagues in blue.

“Chuck’s gone from a situation where he had one gun pointed at him,” says Homer, “and now he’s got two big ones turned on him.”

“I wish him nothing but the best, I really do,” says McReynolds, who has been in the habit of phoning Hopson on a weekly basis, “But, I haven’t talked to him since he switched.  I’m not going to get in his face, but I’m not going to call him.  I’ll wait for him to call me.” 

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