Rick Perry party switch: Was it unusual?

GOP front-runner Rick Perry used to be a Democrat, but he's not alone in switching parties. Crossing the aisle to the other side is fairly common in US politics.

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    Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks about Israel during a news conference in New York, on Tuesday. Before Perry was a Republican he was a Democrat, why the switch?
    Mary Altaffer/AP
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Here’s something that may come up during Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate in Florida: Rick Perry used to be a Democrat. That’s something that some of his rivals want as many Republican voters as possible to know.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, for instance, has produced a sharp-elbowed ad pointing out that Governor Perry ran Al Gore’s presidential effort in Texas.

But that was Mr. Gore’s 1988 effort, not the epic battle of 2000. Perry became a Republican 22 years ago, prior to winning a 1989 race for agriculture commissioner. Perry per se isn’t the point, here anyway. Party-switching is. Crossing the aisle to the other side is fairly common in US politics. In fact, Perry’s not the only current GOP presidential hopeful to have decided the grass is greener on the other side of the aisle.

The reasons a politico might swap a (D) for an (R) or an (R) for a (D), or decide they’re an (I), are fairly obvious. Their political beliefs might have changed, for one. The context of what their party stands for might have changed, for another. Or they might just think a different identity gives them a better chance to win.

Since 1980, 16 members of the US House of Representatives have changed parties during their time in office, so it’s not a blue moon kind of thing. It can be perilous, though: The party you left dislikes you, and the party you just joined may not trust your bona fides. Of those 16 House members who switched, half lost their next election.

Arlen Specter was a moderate GOP senator from Pennsylvania for almost 30 years. He switched affiliations in 2009 after it became clear his vote for President Obama’s stimulus program would cause him trouble in the GOP primary. But he lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak, ending his Senate career.

Does a “switcher” label hurt one’s presidential chances? Well, Ronald Reagan used to be a Democrat before switching to the GOP in 1962, and you know how that story ends. And as we said before, Perry has company. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer is running for the GOP nomination, and he was a Democrat until 1991. Then there’s Representative Paul himself: He bolted the GOP in 1987, upset that it wasn’t really cutting the size of government, and ran for the White House on the Libertarian Party ticket. He was reelected to Congress as a Republican in 1996.

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