Alabama Democrat Defects to the Republicans
WASHINGTON - Rep. Parker Griffith, a freshman Democrat from Alabama, switched to the Republican Party on Tuesday, citing sharp differences on health care, climate change legislation and government spending.
The surprise move comes just as the Democrats are on the cusp of a major policy victory in the Senate, which is nearing passage of a massive health care bill.
"I can no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country, hurts our economy and drives us further and further into debt," Griffith said at a news conference in his hometown of Huntsville. The former radiation oncologist said the health care bill is "bad for our doctors" and "bad for our patients."
The decision follows four retirement announcements by centrist Democrats in recent weeks, leaving the party with a growing number of seats to defend in conservative-leaning districts next year. The last time a House member changed parties was in 2004, when then-freshman Democrat Rodney Alexander of Louisiana joined the GOP, according to the House historian's office.
"It's an indication of the anxiety that Democrats are feeling," said Charles Cook, publisher of non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Obviously, Parker Griffith decided he'd rather switch than fight."
Even with Griffith's defection, Democrats still control the House 257-178. But CQ Politics rates 12 seats currently held by Democrats as tossups, compared with one held by a Republican.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who heads his party's congressional campaign committee, issued a strongly worded statement that called on Griffith to repay Democrats who helped get him elected. The party pumped more than $1 million into his 2008 contest.
"Mr. Griffith, failing to honor our commitment to him, has a duty and responsibility to return the financial resources that were invested in him," he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the defection sends a message "that there is no longer room in the Democratic Party for mainstream Americans."
Griffith won election with 51% of the vote in a conservative northern Alabama district that strongly favored Republican John McCain in the presidential race.
Since coming to Washington, Griffith, 67, has bucked the party on marquee legislation - casting "no" votes, for instance, on the health care bill and the economic stimulus package. At a town hall meeting in August, he called Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House's top Democrat, "divisive" and said he would not vote to re-elect her as House speaker.
In his remarks, Griffith said his decision was not easy, "but I always remember I was not sent to Congress to represent a political party, I was sent to represent the people, the values and the future of north Alabama."
Griffith still faces a primary election, and a top official with the Club for Growth, which works to elect conservative, pro-business candidates warned that Griffith is no shoo-in. "People will see this switch as political opportunism and that will not play in his favor," said Andrew Roth, the group's vice president of government affairs.