State Reps. Aaron Peña of Edinburg and Allan Ritter of Nederland ditched the Democrats last week, surrounded by grinning Republicans who gathered at a packed news conference to welcome them into the party and to claim a House supermajority for the GOP. Now the Republicans’ job is to hold those two seats — one on union turf and the other in a corner of the state that’s allergic to elephants. Ritter is following a time-tested strategy that has worked for others. Peña is challenging political history.
Over time, some switchers have prospered. In 1983, Phil Gramm, then a U.S. congressman, changed to the Republican Party, resigned his seat and ran for re-election so voters could ratify his transformation. That raised his profile, laid the table for a successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1984, and is still the gold standard for how to switch and duck charges of opportunism and misrepresentation from voters.
Rick Perry, a Democratic legislator from Haskell, switched parties in 1989 before his first statewide run in 1990. The governor wasn’t the first ex-Democrat to try running statewide as a Republican: Henry Grover, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in 1972, was a former Democratic legislator from Houston who switched parties in the mid-1960s. Bill Archer, a former Democratic House member from Houston who went on to become a powerful chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, switched to the Republicans two years after Grover.
James Nowlin, now a senior federal judge in Austin, represented San Antonio as a member of both parties in the Legislature, too. U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, switched from the Democrats after he was redistricted into a Republican stronghold.
But some switchers have suffered. Former State Sen. Kent Hance of Lubbock, one of the losers in the 1984 Democratic Senate primary, flipped but didn’t quite catch the ring, losing a 1986 Republican primary for governor, making it to the Railroad Commission and then losing another primary in 1990. He is now the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System. U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin of West Columbia switched to the Republicans in 1995 but lost to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Surfside in the 1996 primary.
Two Texas House members went from red to blue in the last 30 years, but both quickly drowned in Republican tides, according to the Texas Legislative Reference Library. Bernard Erickson of Cleburne won as a Republican in 1992 but lost a bid for re-election when he switched to the Democrats before the 1994 cycle. Kirk England of Grand Prairie won as a Republican in 2006, switched and won as a Democrat two years later and then lost last month to a Republican.
Unlike Erickson, England hopes to run again. “How you weigh it is in the best interest of your district and of yourself,” he said of switching.
Before this week, eight Democratic legislators had gone to the Republicans since 1980, each winning at least one election bearing the new standard. With Ritter and Peña on board, the switcher caucus will have five members left when legislators convene next month. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville went red a year ago, elbowed his way through the Republican primary and cruised to re-election last month. Given the political climate, he looks like Einstein. Two other former Democrats — Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and Warren Chisum of Pampa — won again and will start new terms next month.
Success is all about reading local voters correctly. Ritter’s southeast Texas district has been voting for Republicans, and he’s apparently acceptable enough (or lucky enough) that the GOP didn’t challenge him this year. His switch may be a reasonable bet, in electoral terms, and he’s more likely to be treated favorably in new political maps being drawn in 2011.
Peña’s map will be tricky. He’s from Hidalgo County, where no statewide Republican with Democratic opposition broke 40 percent last month. Republicans would like to shake the party’s weakness with Hispanic voters, and that’ll mean extra attention to the half-dozen Latino Republicans, including Peña, who made it into the House. But South Texas voters could trump the Republicans’ good intentions: Peña, unlike his fellow flipper, enters 2012 as an underdog.