Both of the 2012 party conventions are showcasing recent political converts contemplating second acts.
Ex-Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican-turned-independent who is slated to tout President Obama from the convention stage on Thursday, is a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2014. Ex-Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, the Democrat-turned-Republican who addressed the GOP faithful in Tampa last week, is considering a congressional bid from his new home in Northern Virginia.
Are their convention speeches merely publicity stunts by political has-beens for the delight of partisan audiences? Or could their convention debuts serve as launching pads into the next chapters of their careers?
The answer, political strategists say, depends on their public images and the chemistry of their potential future races. Party turncoats have had mixed success in recent elections. For every Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the former senator from Colorado who won reelection after switching from Democrat to Republican, there’s an Arlen Specter, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who became a Democrat and lost his seat in his new party’s primary.
Changes of heart often are not welcomed by voters in an increasingly polarized political climate.
“I represent a group of Americans who all too often have no one to speak for them,” Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican who became an independent, told the Democratic convention on Tuesday. “This group doesn’t necessarily have a name. We’ve been called moderates ... but there is nothing moderate about our love of country.”
For Crist, a political comeback looks daunting but not impossible. As a Republican governor, he made friends with key Democratic constituencies—African-Americans when he advocated felon voting rights, teachers when he vetoed a bill opposed by their union, and all sorts of Democrats when he extended early voting hours in the 2008 election. But Crist became an independent when he was on the verge of losing the 2010 GOP Senate primary, which tainted his conversion with political expedience. He lost in the general election.
Republicans and Democrats alike are skeptical that a politician once dubbed “Chain Gang Charlie” for his support of prison chain gangs could make a credible run as a Democrat.
“Candidates who switch parties are going to be met with skepticism because they have to convince voters that they’re in it for the right reasons, not for themselves,” said Democratic consultant Paul Begala. “There’s a higher threshold for these guys, but switching parties is not necessarily the kiss of death.”
Former President Reagan had the best answer to questions about whether he had betrayed his party. He said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left him.
That’s a theme Crist is expected to pick up on Thursday. “I expect him to say that the country needs to be more moderate because the extremes on the left and right are what’s got us into the gridlock we’re in now,” said Democratic fundraiser John Morgan, Crist’s law partner.
Chris Nicholas, Specter’s former campaign manager, said that the success of a party-switcher typically hinges on the competitiveness of the primary. If the candidate can make it to the general election, a mixed record can be an asset. “In primaries, voters want to have their cake and eat it, too,” Nicholas said. “They want you to be right on the issues, right for the right reasons, and right for the longest amount of time.”
This article appears in the September 6, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.