September 22, 2007
More on Rep. England's party switch

State Rep. Kirk England, the Lege's newest Democrat, discusses the reasons why he switched.

"My community's agenda and the Republican leadership's agenda are absolutely not the same," said the Grand Prairie lawmaker. "Certainly the speaker is included in that, but it's the Republican leadership in general. I'm going to throw the governor in there."

Mr. England said he and Republican leaders were not on the same page on issues related to public education, access to health care and other pocketbook matters. And he criticized Gov. Rick Perry for vetoing a bill that would have increased the state's contribution to community colleges.

"Shame on the leadership for that," he said, blaming House Speaker Tom Craddick and his lieutenants.


Mr. England said Republicans were not interested in pocketbook issues and even tried to get him to change votes in ways that his constituents would oppose.

The self-described moderate, first elected last year in a special vote to replace a lawmaker who resigned, opposed Mr. Craddick's bid to be re-elected speaker and often voted with Democrats.

"The leadership didn't like it," he said. "They made it loud and clear and worked to get me to change those votes."

The district, which also includes southern Irving, has long been a swing district between the two parties but appears to be leaning more Democratic, as Mr. England won his two elections by small margins. But he said his change had nothing to do with demographic shifts or political opportunism.

"Switching parties is not going to change the way I vote," he said. "I saw the Democratic Party understands the diverse state we live in."

Party switching is a mix of opportunism and genuine sentiment. I think, though I can't claim with any certainty, that Rep. England will have a smoother path to re-election as a Democrat, given the trends in his district. I think he's going to have to work to win over some Democratic skeptics, who might otherwise want to oust him in a primary in favor of a "real" Democrat. I think, based on what I've been hearing from a lot of people, that he's sincere about his reasons for switching. And I think if he sticks with that message about why he switched, he'll do as well as he can. I'm not ready to say he'll win his next elections, in March and November. But I think he'll be in a good position to do so.

To me, the intriguing thing about this is the possibility that England is at the leading edge of a trend. That same story above also notes the switch back of Dallas County Judge John Creuzot. As Creuzot was a Democrat before he was a Republican, and given the Democratic sweep in Dallas County last year, one can easily see that as more opportunism than anything. But from a more crassly pragmatic perspective, it all looks the same in the box score. I've heard rumors already of a couple of Harris County judges, who would be up for re-election in 2010, that will run as Democrats. One presumes this is contingent on the Dems doing as well here next year as many people think they will, but you never know. A trickle can become a flood in a hurry. Professors R-Squared expand on that:

Party switching, much like the the fight over Craddick's Speakership and the reduction in the GOP's majority in the Texas House after 2006, should be of serious concern to our fellow Republicans regarding the long-term health and future of the Republican Party in Texas.

To underscore just how much of a concern that this should be to our Republican readers, we're going to go scholarly here:

1.) Significant party switching tends to be concentrated in periods of high ideological polarization (Nokken, 2005).

2.) The varying fortunes of the parties among voters can potentially induce individuals to switch parties (Aldrich and Bianco, 1992).

3.) Party switches tend to coincide with changes in important macro-political conditions such as times of military conflict, changing economic conditions, and changes in partisan control of key political institutions (King and Benjamin, 1986).

4.) A member's ideological position relative to the two parties also appears to influence the decision to switch parties. Ideologically cross-pressured members - those who lie to the moderate-to-liberal end of the distribution of Republicans may find that their preferences are incongruent with the members of their current party and actually lie closer to members of the other party and switch parties to take advantage of a better ideological fit (Castle and Fett, 1996).

5.) A party that attracts switchers without losing members to rival parties, obviously, increases its seat share, which in turn might make it more attractive to other potential switchers (Laver and Benoit, 2003).

The scholarly research in Political Science would strongly suggest that party switching (which have seen in Harris County and nationally) potentially signifies a serious downturn in the fortunes for the GOP in 2008 and beyond.

Obviously, England could be a one-off. If he loses in either the primary or the general next year, that would seem to be a major disincentive for other potential wannabee Dems. But if he wins, especially if he wins with a decent margin, well...Consider what happened a few years back, courtesy of Capitol Inside:

The trend of Democrats switching to the GOP got under way amid Ronald Reagan's success in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s with the growth of the Republican Party in Texas in the 1990s. After former House member Anita Hill of Dallas abandoned the Democrats in favor of the GOP in 1981, Ray Keller of Duncanville and George Pierce of San Antonio followed suit when they spurned the Democratic Party and became Republicans in 1983. The next House member to make the switch to the GOP was Charlie Evans, who became a Republican in 1987.

Perry had been elected to the House three times as a Democrat before jumping to the GOP in 1989 and winning the agricultural commissioner's race as a Republican the following year. A Democratic House colleague, Ric Williamson of Weatherford, joined the Republican Party in 1995 several years before Perry tapped him to be a transportation commissioner. State Rep. Delwin Jones served in the House for nine years as a Democrat before returning 16 years later as a Republican. Chisum was the last House member to jump ship to the GOP when he bid farewell to the Democrats ten years ago.

I don't think the GOP would have achieved anywhere near its level of dominance in Texas without enticing so many Democrats to jump ship. I think the Dems can win back the State House without Kirk England, but to get back to statewide competitiveness, they'll need a lot of people to look at what England did and say to themselves "I know what he's talking about". I have hope that this is happening. We'll see.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 22, 2007 to The great state of Texas