Party-Switching and the Senate

Are Sinema and Machin going to jump ship?

In the ongoing conversation about Senators Joe Machin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and their opposition to filibuster reform one other issue that constantly emerges is whether they will change parties. Let me state that this is highly unlikely, and even if undertaken would likely result in them losing their seats. My reasoning and some recent history are detailed below.

First, the most fundamental motivation for elected officials is re-election. Whether one thinks that Machin and Sinema are pursuing smart strategies for re-election or not, they clearly think that they are.

Second, re-election in the United States requires re-nomination. The gatekeeper in the two major US parties is the primary (with occasional exceptions).

Now, as a hypothetical, would Joe Manchin’s re-election chances be enhanced in 2024 if he were on the ballot as a Republican? I think that the answer to that question is 100% yes. West Virginia is a very red state and 2024 will be a presidential year. I think, in fact, that given the closeness of his 2018, I have doubts he can win re-election as a Democrat in 2024 (he won re-election with only 49.4% in a mid-term election under national conditions that were favorable to Democrats).

So, if re-election is the paramount motivator and if the best route to re-election is be nominated as a Republican, why wouldn’t he switch parties?

Well, as it pertains to be on the 2024 ballot, it is not up to him, it is up to primary voters. And, I would note, it isn’t up to party leadership either (in the Senate or in the broader party).

Indeed, the weakness of US parties that would allow Manchin to party switch during his term in office also would mean that the institutional party (as opposed to the party-as-nominating-electorate) could not place him on the ballot even if they wanted to (as, say, part of a deal to get him to switch now).

So the question is not “Why would Joe Manchin want the Republicans?” it is “Why would the Republicans want Joe Manchin?” Why nominate a retread moderate Democrat when you can have pure GOP goodness? (In all seriousness, why would the primary electorate want Manchin when they could nominate a non-moderate, non-turncoat, non-ex-Democrat?)

The same basic logic is true of Sinema, but is heavily reinforced by the fact that she is an open bisexual with a Ph.D. in Justice Studies who started her political career working for the Ralph Nader campaign/the Green Party. How is she ever going to win a statewide GOP primary?


It should be noted that since 1890 there have only been twenty-one Senators who have changed parties while in office, so it not all that common.

I would delineate the current partisan era as post-1994 and would discount the two switches made in the immediate aftermath of the “Republican Revolution” (Richard Shelby of Alabama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado) as the party system itself was in a state of temporary flux.

Since then only four Senators have switched parties while in office: 1. Robert Smith of NH (who went from R to I); 2. Jim Jeffords of VT (who went from R to I and caucuses with the Democrats); 3. Joe Lieberman (who went from D to “Independent Democrat” when he lost the D primary); and 4. Arlen Specter of PA (who went from R to D).

Smith ended up changing back to R, so a bit of a wash.

Jeffords did not run for re-election.

Lieberman’s case is weird, because it was not about chancing caucuses, but about getting around the Democratic primary electorate. This was aided and abetted by CT law that allowed him to lose the primary and still get on the ballot (and the the weakness of the CT GOP). It should be underscored that Lieberman’s party “switch” did not cause him to change his party caucus, so it really wasn’t a switch in the sense we are talking about here.

Specter’s is the purest example of what people think that Manchin/Sinema might do: try to make a big splash by getting in with the opposition party in the hopes of winning re-election in an environment more favorable to the new party once switched (Specter was a moderate R who saw being a D as a better route forward). Specter switched, which helped the ACA get passed, but despite a strong endorsement from the PA Democratic Party establishment, Specter lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak who went on to lose the general to the more conservative Pat Toomey.

All of this is to say that a) party-switching is not that common, and b) not all that it is cracked up to be.

I would add: if the parties themselves (and not the primary electorates) controlled party nominations, then deal-cutting to peel off moderates on both sides might be more common. But Republican leadership in the Senate cannot offer the nominations to anyone, making their bargaining position quite weak.

While one should not make predictions, a party switch by either Manchin or Sinema would be unlikely.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, US Senate
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Beth says:

    So, I basically agree with you, think you’re way more of an expert on this and almost certainly right.

    However, I do think you might be discounting just how dumb those two are. They are like two smiling blocks of wood in human suits. It’s a marvel they got as far as they did. I know everyone likes to think Manchin is some sort of political genius who always know which way the wind is blowing and can triangulate where he needs to be. Personally, I think he’s an atavistic moron, who manages to get lucky. Sinema is just a kooky weirdo who gives my fellow Bisexuals a bad name. Like we need that.

    My evidence for this opinion is the increasingly dumb articles they keep putting out. Everyone’s collective response to those seems to be “why did they do that?” Also, the political unguarded layup they had was to be cagey about how they were going to handle the filibuster. All they had to do is play “will they/won’t they” like some bad sitcom and they’d have everyone dancing to their tune. Instead they took it off the table immediately then set the table on fire and jumped on.

    So, anyways, I don’t think you can easily discount their level of bold dumbness.

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  2. Kathy says:

    While the parties have little say in who gets nominated, the party leadership in Congress does have a HUGE say about whether an elected representative or senator is in the party. I mean committee assignments, and perhaps even allowing them to caucus with the party.

    Given the 50/50 party split right now, you’d think any one senator could tilt the balance by switching, and could be rewarded by their new party with choice assignments, the Moon, the stars, and the Sun.

    You’d think so, but Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Sinema, and Manchin are all with their original parties. Either they don’t want to switch, or think they’d fail at reelection if they did.

    BTW, 2024 is the next millennium as political time goes. Yes, breaking the filibuster might hurt their chances at reelection, but passing the voting rights bill would increase their odds. Both actions defuse a potential primary from their own side. Time will blunt the impact of the former but not the latter.

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Why nominate a retread moderate Democrat when you can have pure GOP goodness? (In all seriousness, why would the primary electorate want Manchin when they could nominate a non-moderate, non-turncoat, non-ex-Democrat?).

    Just look at Representative Jeff Van Drew for your answer. As many have noted recently, the Republican base doesn’t care about particular policies anymore, only about “owning the libs”. Which means a lifetime of running as a Democrat isn’t a barrier to Manchin if he can make his switch sufficiently “lib-owning” to become a new hero to the MAGA wing.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    …but despite a strong endorsement from the PA Democratic Party establishment, Specter lost the Democratic primary pretty badly to the more conservative Pay Toomey.

    I believe you mean that Specter lost the general to Toomey.

    Manchin and Sinema aren’t switching. You need to go back to the fading of the Dixie-crat era to find party switchers who prospered in the new party.

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  5. wr says:

    Didn’t both of them vote to impeach Trump at least once? Even Sinema has to know there’s no way to run as a Republican after that.

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  6. Jen says:

    I don’t think they are switching parties. If either of them were to, I’d lay odds that it would be Sinema, and NOT to Republican, I could see her switching to Independent–it’s certainly a word she likes to throw around frequently. She seems to be trying to pattern herself as a “John McCain of the Democrats”–someone who annoys the crap out of her declared party but has the Best Interests of Arizona (TM) in mind. She fails to realize that she is nowhere near the statesman he was.

    Anyway, I agree with the analysis put forth above. It’s not switching parties that is the issue, it’s the potential threat of that which is useful to both of them.

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  7. inhumans99 says:

    Okay, so they are unable to party switch, so what…we (Democrats, I am technically “independent” but for all intents and purposes am a Democratic Voter) should kick the bums out of office. They are like tits on a bull as far as the Democratic Party is concerned, utterly useless to helping our team out, and the GOP does not need them when as you noted Steven, they can nominate Trump loving candidates who would be lock to win their elections, so I guess it sucks to be them.

    I do not expect them to go quietly, but we should go hard on putting up other candidates against these two utterly useless politicians. Maybe they get lucky and are re-elected, but good luck with that.

    We need to stop dicking around and try to nominate candidates who understand that if many of us believe that the future of Democracy is at stake, then we need members of our team who get that the stakes in the next election cycle or two are as high as they can be for as long as I can remember and will not put out lame articles asking for a unicorn (that being the GOP being willing to work with/Ds on a compromise to get legislation passed) as a Birthday Present.

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  8. @Sleeping Dog: Worse–I left out a whole clause–that he lost the primary to Sestak who went on to lose to Toomey (fixed above).

    I wrote this one in a hurry and glossed over that.

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  9. @Kathy:

    the party leadership in Congress does have a HUGE say about whether an elected representative or senator is in the party. I mean committee assignments, and perhaps even allowing them to caucus with the party.

    Who is in the party? Not really (unless they vote to eject).

    What committees they serve on? Yes.

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  10. @Stormy Dragon:

    Just look at Representative Jeff Van Drew for your answer.

    It helped Drew immensely that he was basically unopposed in the GOP primary (which would not be the case in Senate races). This is key.

    Not to mention being one a one-termer prior to the switch.

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  11. @inhumans99:

    We need to stop dicking around and try to nominate candidates who understand that if many of us believe that the future of Democracy is at stake

    I take the point, but as I keep trying to point out, there is no “we” here unless you live in AZ and vote in the AZ Dem primary.

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  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It helped Drew immensely that he was basically unopposed in the GOP primary (which would not be the case in Senate races). This is key.

    Except he weren’t. He beat Trump Admin official Bob Patterson ~82% – ~17%

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  13. @Stormy Dragon: I would consider a contest that one wins by that margin to conform to the formulation “basically unopposed.”

    At a minimum, he hardly had a substantially contested primary. The result being sailing through the nomination phase.

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  14. Jen says:

    I do not expect them to go quietly, but we should go hard on putting up other candidates against these two utterly useless politicians. Maybe they get lucky and are re-elected, but good luck with that.

    The issue is finding the right candidate(s).

    Both Sinema and Manchin represent states that vote Republican. Manchin has a steeper hill to climb than Sinema, because Arizona has always had a quirky bent to its Republicanism, and lately has been trending more purple.

    So, Democrats need to find Senate candidates that:
    1) Are moderate enough to win in lean-red states
    2) But, have such strong Dem bona fides that they stick with the party

    That’s a pretty small eye of a needle to thread. To top it off, these candidates also need to be personable enough to raise a ton of money, motivate both the base (because you can’t win without it!) and independent lean voters (because you can’t win without them either!).

    This is why celebrities and sports figures present reasonably attractive choices to win these seats. At least you get the name ID/personable/able to raise money in one package.

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  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Isn’t this kind of begging the question? People who switch parties don’t win primaries, because if they do it means there wasn’t any serious opposition.

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  16. @Stormy Dragon: My specific point is that I think your thesis that all it takes for a party-switcher to be successful in the new party is “owning the libs” and then using this example to be unpersuasive because it does not appear that the challenger was much of a challenger. It is unlikely that this would be the case at the Senate level if either Manchin or Sinema switched parties–the Specter scenario is more likely: defeat at the primary level.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    Steven, you make a good point. Essentially, the party system has changed and the leaders cannot make much of a deal with the potential switcher, because the thing they want the most, not being primaried by a serious contender, is off the table in the modern era. Party leaders cannot prevent a well known, well financed individual from taking the nom.

    Here’s why I think Manchin is a real danger, despite that. Right now his path to victory in the general is essentially this equation (All of the Democratic votes) + (enough of the Republicans to give him an overall majority). He figures he will get 90+ percent of the Dem votes just by adding the “D” after his name, and so he only needs to pursue the Repub vote. But if he screws things up badly enough with the Dems, someone might actually primary him and he would lose there. If he feels strongly he is going to lose I think he’ll go to Mitch and ask to cut a deal. Mitch will tell him anything he wants to hear and promise him the world and while Manchin may not trust him, he may feel it’s the least bad option.

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  18. Michael Cain says:

    @Jen:

    Both Sinema and Manchin represent states that vote Republican.

    Can’t argue about West Virginia, but Arizona? 5-of-9 US House seats are (D); both US Senators are (D); Biden won the EC votes; the (R)s hold the state legislature by one seat in each chamber with a district map that favors them (population growth has been an urban/suburban thing); the (R) governor is term-limited out. Redistricting will be done by an independent commission. In recent years, voters have passed a hike in the minimum wage, family leave, and recreational marijuana, all things the Republicans actively campaigned against. I’m willing to make a modest wager that in 2022 at the state level Arizona goes from trifecta (R) to trifecta (D).

    It’s a trend in the Interior West. Colorado was considered a safe red state until suddenly, it wasn’t. Nevada was considered a safe red state (sans Reid), until suddenly it wasn’t. I think Arizona has reached that tipping point. Utah in ten years.

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  19. Kylopod says:

    Why nominate a retread moderate Democrat when you can have pure GOP goodness?

    Jim Justice did it.

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  20. Jen says:

    @Michael Cain: I think AZ is close to tipping, but not there quite yet. You’ll also note that I specifically stated that Sinema has more of a chance of hanging on than Manchin.

    I have family that lives out there–I lived there for a time as well–and while it’s definitely changing, I don’t put it fully in the “blue” column yet. Sinema’s win margin was barely over 2%.

    It’s never been as solidly Republican as some thought. Janet Nopalitano was Governor not that long ago. But, Massachusetts has a history of Republican Governors, so that’s not really the best metric. It can and does swing.

    If Republicans nominate someone more McCain-like, and Dems are ticked enough at Sinema that turnout is depressed, that seat goes Republican.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Cain:

    It’s a trend in the Interior West. Colorado was considered a safe red state until suddenly, it wasn’t. Nevada was considered a safe red state (sans Reid), until suddenly it wasn’t.

    One of the downsides of gerrymandering is that when the dam finally breaks, it’s like the Hemingway quote about going bankrupt:

    ‘How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.’

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jen:

    If Republicans nominate someone more McCain-like, and Dems are ticked enough at Sinema that turnout is depressed, that seat goes Republican.

    Which is the better strategy for the DNC: try to get Martha McSally to run for senate in AZ again, or try to get her to move to another red state and flip those seats?

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  23. Barry says:

    @Beth: “All they had to do is play “will they/won’t they” like some bad sitcom and they’d have everyone dancing to their tune. Instead they took it off the table immediately then set the table on fire and jumped on.”

    This is what amazes me. They are in a sweet position, so long as they keep (pretending that they are) balancing on the edge.

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  24. Ken_L says:

    My fear is that Arizona Democrats will primary Sinema, a fate she richly deserves, and she will proceed to run as an independent or a Green, taking enough votes from the Democratic candidate to throw the election to a Republican. It would depend how much personal following she has in the state.

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  25. Jen says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Ha. Well, McSally probably doesn’t have the name ID elsewhere, but I’m always wary of rematches. That said, I don’t think that the DNC has much say in determining who the Republican candidate will be so…{shrugs}.

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  26. Jack Rivera says:

    A number of people believe Manchin is a hero for saving what’s left of our Republic.

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  27. Jack Rivera says:

    I’m not sure that John McCain’s reputation as a ‘statesman’ was all that. I see him as a patsy for the democrats, a person of vengeance, who couldn’t play politics very well. He won one election too many.

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  28. Jack Rivera says:

    You should be more fearful of losing our republic. A democracy can turn on its citizens just because they are a different party. There has been some articles of older millenials becoming more Conservative also with older millenials who start a family and moving to the suburbs.

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