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By Jay Cost

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On the Parker Griffith Switch

Parker Griffith (D-AL) will announce today that he is switching to the Republican Party. For a President who thrives on "keeping the ball rolling," this is an unfortunate loss of momentum as Senate Democrats get set to pass their health reform bill.

Griffith is but one of more than 250 House Democrats, and he was a certain nay on next month's health care vote - yet his switch is still interesting. It indicates that the decades-long geographical and ideological sorting of both parties is ongoing.

Media pundits have been quick to focus on how the Republican Party has become too conservative for moderate Northeastern Republicans, leaving people like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as outliers and making it difficult for the GOP to win seats in Connecticut, New Hampshire, or upstate New York. This is most certainly true. From 2001 to 2008, George W. Bush was in charge of the Republican Party, and he had all the qualities of a Southern Republican. This made it difficult for Northeastern Republicans to stay in the party. It was a matter of politics (Bush's appeal in the Northeast was quite limited) and policy (southern Republicans controlled the agenda and wrote legislation that they preferred). All of this put pressure on Northeastern Republicans, whose survival rate in the 2006-08 electoral wipeouts was virtually nil.

Now that the Democrats are in charge, we're seeing a similar dynamic on their side of the aisle. Northern, urban liberals control the Democratic Party. They hold the key committee chairs, most of the big leadership posts, and of course the presidency. These sorts of Democrats are not politically popular in the South, which makes life difficult for moderate Southern Democrats. Plus, the Northern liberal leaders write policy that is well to the left of Parker Griffith, who hails from northern Alabama. It's not easy for a guy like Griffith to remain in the Democratic Party, especially in light of the fact that many believe next year will be a bad election for Democrats. Griffith is exactly the kind of member most in danger of being swept away - just like Republicans Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays, and Rob Simmons all lost their Connecticut House seats between 2006 and 2006. He is new to Congress, having won his seat by the narrowest of margins in 2008 while his district gave John McCain 61% of the vote.

Bottom line: while we shouldn't expect any MSM pundit discussions about how Griffith's departure is a sign of the "narrowing" of the Democratic Party, this is still a noteworthy development. Just as the Republican Party's rightward and Southern shift has placed a burden on moderate Northeastern Republicans, so the Democratic Party's leftward and Northern shift has put pressure on moderate Southern Democrats. Now that the liberal Democrats are in charge - pushing their agenda and taking responsibility for the state of the Union - this pressure has become more salient. Griffith may or may not be the only Democrat to make an actual jump to the GOP, but his departure from the Democratic Party underscores the tension between the liberal leadership and many Southern moderates as the House prepares for a big health care vote.

We saw a similar dynamic in 1993-95, as moderate Democrats in the House (e.g. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana) and the Senate (e.g. Richard Shelby of Alabama) jumped to the GOP. That sets up the following expectation: if the GOP picks up 35 to 39 seats next year, John Boehner and Eric Cantor will work like the dickens to convince some disgruntled moderate Democrats to make the jump to the GOP.

As a final point, I'd note with interest that the difference between Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Pelosi actually depends on Democrats who, like Griffith, hail from McCain districts. Forty-nine districts voted for John McCain but sent Democrats to the House of Representatives. Liberal votes on cap-and-trade, health care, the jobs bill, and so on puts a strain on many of them. Griffith might not be the last party-switcher when it's all said and done.

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-Jay Cost