Democrats Are Switching To GOP at a Liberal Rate

Nationwide, 72 Democratic officials changed party labels this year

TWO weeks ago, Democratic Judge David Puryear shocked the residents of liberal Travis County -- dubbed the Berkeley, Calif., of Texas -- and declared he was joining the Republican Party.

''I realized that the values and principles that guide me in my work, and as a parent, were totally at odds with the Democratic Party,'' says the county court judge, who was elected in 1990.

Judge Puryear was not alone: Twenty other prominent Texas Democrats, 11 of them sitting elected officials and even some local Democratic organizers, made the leap that day in a joint ceremony. ''It is clear that Texas is becoming a Republican state,'' declared party chair Tom Pauken.

Nationwide, Republican ranks are growing steadily as elected officials -- from justices of the peace to United States senators -- are changing teams. Last Friday, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado stunned his Democratic colleagues and jumped to the Republicans, citing the Democrats' defeat of the balanced-budget amendment as the last straw.

But the stream of switchers is not at flood level, even in the South, which observers view as making a historic realignment toward Republicanism.

Since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, there have been at least 72 sitting Democratic officials who have switched parties, says Mary Crawford, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Seventy-two is a number the Democrats can only dream about. The last time a Republican became a Democrat in Texas -- State Rep. Bernard Erickson in 1993 -- he lost his next election, (albeit by 22 votes).

Historically, Republicans have had far more success in wooing converts than have Democrats, presumably because people tend to get more conservative as they get older (or smarter, as Republicans like to say). Ronald Reagan used to be a Democrat. So did presidential candidate Phil Gramm, a Republican senator from Texas.

But recent history has shown even greater surges of party-switching than now. During the first seven months of 1989, for example, the RNC lured 128 elected Democratic officials into Republican ranks in eight southern states alone.

At that point, national party chairman Lee Atwater had a grand plan to turn the Deep South solidly Republican. He wooed big names, such as members of Congress, to switch. More important, he targeted local officials such as school board members and city councilors.

As for today's lower numbers, says Ms. Crawford, consider the context. Last November, Republicans swept national, state, and local elections, capturing a majority of governorships and a sizable number of statehouses. Before the elections, Republicans controlled both houses of only eight state legislatures. Now they have 19 states, compared with the Democrats' 18.

In other words, there just aren't as many elected Democrats around to switch parties.

In some cases, switching Democrats have been the deciding factor in securing Republican majorities. After the November elections, party-switchers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina gave Republicans control of their state legislatures -- in the latter case, for the first time since Reconstruction. Crawford says the national party isn't making a particular push to lure converts. ''We're letting the issues speak for themselves,'' she says.

But the Democrats are not fighting hard to keep the wayward in the fold. ''Of course we're concerned,'' says Adam Sohn, a party spokesman. But ''the party has an obligation to its ideas and to the people whom these ideas affect.''

''In the end,'' he adds, ''your political affiliation is an intensely personal decision.''

Some observers are wondering why more politicians aren't declaring themselves independent, given the public's disaffection with party politics.

Jennings McAbee, a 20-year veteran of the South Carolina legislature, did just that. Last May, he left the Democratic Party and won reelection in November as an independent. Partly, it was a tactical decision, based on the reapportionment of his district, which went from being 36 percent minority to 60 percent.

By running as an independent, Mr. McAbee, who is white, skipped the primary and went straight to the final election, which proved advantageous in the dynamic of his district. But also, he says, ''I got tired of party politics and having to vote the party line instead of the best interests of the people.''

The Republicans are just as politicized, he says. ''I've had as many Republicans as Democrats ask me about how to run as an independent,'' he says.

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