When longtime Republican senator Arlen Spector announced earlier this week that he was ditching the GOP to become a Democrat, the news set Washington atwitter. Not only did the Republicans lose one of their most visible faces in the Senate, but the Democrats also inched closer to gaining the all-important 60-seat majority. Party changes like this are obviously uncommon, but some surprising people have changed teams at some point in their careers. Here’s a look at some well-known politicians who changed their minds:
Reagan may be a conservative icon now, but he originally leaned to the left. Reagan’s father was liberal, and as a boy, the future president was a great admirer of FDR. When Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947, though, he started to migrate to the right and even testified during the McCarthy hearings as a friendly witness. At the start of the 1950 senatorial race in California, he was still enough of a Democrat to endorse the party’s candidate, Helen Douglas. Later in the campaign, though, he changed his mind and threw his support behind the GOP candidate, a young up-and-comer named Richard Nixon. The rest was history.
Wait, everyone knows Spector changed parties…that only happened a few days ago! Not so fast. This week’s migration was actually the second time in his career Specter switched parties. He actually started out as a Democrat, but switched to the GOP in 1965 when he ran for district attorney in Philadelphia. According to Specter, the Democratic machine in Philly was so corrupt at the time that he didn’t feel like he could be an effective DA within its confines.
The Clintons may arguably be the first family of the Democrats, but former presidential hopeful and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasn’t always so liberal. Early in her life, she was a Republican, and not just a passive one, either. She campaigned for uber-conservative GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and even chaired her local Young Republicans. However, after she left home to attend college at Wellesley, her views gradually shifted to the left, and she eventually joined Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign.
The late senator from South Carolina fashioned a long career out of switching parties. He started out as a Democrat, but at the 1948 Democratic National Convention Thurmond became enraged over the party’s attempt to add civil rights elements to its platform. He left the party as part of a group that assembled as the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats; Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat and picked up 39 electoral votes. In 1964, Thurmond, who was by then a senator, switched to the Republican side of the aisle to support GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
The Republican challenger who FDR drubbed in the 1940 presidential election actually got his start as a Democrat. During the 1930s, though, he decided that he didn’t like the way New Deal policies restricted business activities and switched his allegiances. Since Wilkie had effectively snubbed FDR by turning his back on the Democratic Party, the Republican base loved him enough to give him the presidential nomination in 1940.
Helms, who spent 30 years in the Senate, started out as a Democrat, but in 1970 he grew disgusted over the Civil Rights Act and other progressive policies the party had taken on. Helms jumped to the Republican Party in time to be elected to the Senate in the 1972 election as a GOP candidate.
The former Secretary of State is another conservative hero, but she was actually a Democrat until 1982. Rice said she became a Republican after growing disenchanted with Democratic foreign policies and being reminded by her father that the Democratic Party would not allow him to register to vote during Alabama’s Jim Crow days.
The Round Mound of Rebound has made no secret of his desire to someday run for governor in Alabama. In 2006, Barkley broke up with the GOP to become an independent because he was fed up with the party’s politics. Or, as Barkley put it, “I was a Republican until they lost their minds.” Quite a shift for a man who once answered his Democrat grandmother’s admonition that the Republicans were only for rich people by quipping, “I’m rich.”
Campbell, a Native American legislator from Colorado, served as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1993, at which point he jumped to the Senate. In 1995, he dropped the Dems to become a Republican in response to Bill Clinton’s financial policies and what he saw as unfair treatment of the West by environmental policies. The change didn’t hurt his popularity, though; Campbell spent another 10 years in the Senate as a Republican.
New York’s financial guru mayor was a lifelong Democrat until 2001, when he jumped to the GOP to run for mayor. Bloomberg stuck with the party until 2007, when he suddenly announced that he was severing ties with the Republican Party and becoming an independent. In announcing the move, Bloomberg claimed that by becoming an independent he could better help overcome partisan squabbles that had plagued the city.
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