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Why these Democrats are defecting to the GOP

Four Democratic lawmakers in West Virginia, Louisiana, and North Carolina switched parties recently. Should Democrats worry?

The upper chest and shoulders of a white man wearing a blue jacket, a white shirt and an American flag-patterned tie, with a large campaign button on his chest reading “Trump 2020.”
A person wears a campaign button while waiting for President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in November 2019 in Sunrise, Florida.
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Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Four state lawmakers have now switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the last month. It’s part of a decades-long trend that’s helped the GOP consolidate power in certain states, handing them majorities, and even supermajorities.

The West Virginia GOP announced Monday that Delegate Elliott Pritt, who was elected as a Democrat, was joining its ranks. Last week, Louisiana Rep. Jeremy LaCombe became the second Democrat in the state house to defect, just weeks after Rep. Francis Thompson announced his decision to leave the party. Thompson’s decision gave Republicans a supermajority in the state house; North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham also gave Republicans a supermajority in that state’s house when she announced her decision to switch parties earlier this month. Republicans in both Louisiana and North Carolina now have the power to override their Democratic governors’ vetos as a result.

Party switching isn’t a new phenomenon. A total of 169 state legislators have switched parties since 1994, according to Ballotpedia. The changes have largely benefited the Republican Party, with 80 Democrats joining the GOP and only 23 Republicans becoming Democrats in the last 30 years. Those Republican pickups were mostly in states that were once more purple — such as Mississippi and Louisiana — that have since taken hard right turns, and where the GOP has entrenched their power through gerrymandering.

The trend isn’t limited to state government. US Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona left the Democratic Party late last year and plans to run as an independent in 2024. And in 2019, US Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey notably broke Democratic ranks to vote against impeaching former President Donald Trump and declared that he would be switching parties. But it is more common at the state level, and the recent changes give rise to the question: Why are there suddenly so many party switchers at once?

Each of the state lawmakers have their individual reasons. West Virginia Republican Party chair Elgine McArdle said in a statement that Pritt had realized that the “Democratic Party of today is not the Democratic Party that our parents grew up with.” Cotham said that she was bullied by her Democratic colleagues and that the Republican Party is a better fit for her values, even though she’s previously sided with Democrats on many of the most divisive issues, including abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. Thompson said that he’s felt pushed out of the Democratic Party because its stance on certain issues is incompatible with his religious views. LaCombe did not offer up his own reasoning.

But there are also some common threads among the cases that might help explain their decisions.

Switching to the majority party means more power

In the rare instances when politicians switch parties, it’s typically in the direction of the party that’s in power. That’s exactly what happened in all three states. West Virginia had been controlled by Democrats for the better part of a century before the legislature flipped in 2015 to Republicans, who now have supermajorities in both chambers. While North Carolina has been trending increasingly Democratic, it’s still very much purple, as evidenced by its divided government. Louisiana has become increasingly conservative, with white voters defecting from the Democratic Party to support former President Donald Trump.

There’s also an incentive for a party that is just short of a supermajority, as was the case in Louisiana and North Carolina, to court members who may be on the political margins. It’s not yet clear whether the GOP made any concessions to any of the lawmakers to persuade them to come over, but it’s certainly possible.

“It’s a lot more fun to be part of the majority and even more fun to be part of the supermajority,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

The lawmakers will inherently wield more power and have access to favorable committee assignments. But they also don’t have to vote with their new parties all the time: Greene said it would be strange for Cotham to turn her back on her previous positions on abortion and LGBTQ rights, but it’s possible that she might vote with Republicans on the state budget, where the implementation of Medicaid expansion is likely to be contentious.

Switching parties can also be a means of political survival if a seat is trending in the direction of the opposite party. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Cotham, who is in a Democratic district in Mecklenburg County that is trending bluer and doesn’t seem likely to shift dramatically toward Republicans even after the state’s electoral maps are redrawn, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. That’s led to calls from Democratic leadership for her to step down, arguing she can no longer adequately represent her constituents.

But Pritt, who defeated an incumbent Republican in 2022, represents Fayette County in West Virginia, which went to Trump in 2020 by almost 40 points. And LaCombe may have come to his decision to switch parties after he lost by 10 percentage points to a moderate Republican in his state senate campaign last year. Trump won the district LaCombe was running in by more than 20 points in 2020.

“It may well also be a function of legislators seeing some electoral writing on the wall, and they don’t want to be caught out in the next election with the wrong party affiliation,” Taylor said.

Ideological differences may play a role

Pritt, Cotham, and Thompson cited ideological differences with fellow Democrats that ultimately proved irreconcilable for them.

Elaborating on Pritt’s decision to switch parties, McArdle said that today’s Democratic Party is led by the “radical, woke left who continue to advocate values and policies which defy logic and clash with the traditional values of the majority of West Virginians.”

Thompson said that the party embraced positions on certain issues that did not “align with those values and principles that are part of my Christian life.” He had already been caucusing with Republicans, becoming the only Democrat in 2021 to call for overturning Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’s vetoes of bills that would ban trans girls from school sports and repeal permit requirements to carry concealed handguns.

Cotham said that her Democratic colleagues had attempted to control her and that the party had become “unrecognizable to me and to so many others throughout this state and this country.”

“Has the party left them or have they left the party?” said Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College.

But while there might be common threads among the Democratic lawmakers who have recently defected, sometimes state politics defies logic and comes down to personal relationships. Cotham claimed mistreatment by her Democratic colleagues, and another lawmaker who switched parties earlier this year in New Jersey did so over his former Republican colleagues’ suggestion that he was “too old and might die in office.”

“State legislative bodies are strange institutions that, in many ways, resemble high school campuses,” Taylor said. “They tend not to get wrapped up in the big matters of affairs of state that members of Congress are wrapped up in. And so you get these relationships, these petty jealousies, these rivalries, and those things can sometimes make a difference.”

Update, April 17, 4:20 pm: This story, originally published April 11, has been updated with information on Pritt’s decision to switch parties.

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