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Why Jeff Van Drew talked of switching parties too soon

Rep. Jeff Van DrewJeff Van DrewThe Hill's Campaign Newsletter: Election Day – Part 4 Van Drew fends off challenge from Kennedy after party switch Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night MORE (R-N.J.)’s reported decision to leave the Democratic Party on Saturday was not surprising. He represents a moderate district that President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE won by nearly 5 points. A recent internal poll showed the first-term representative was on course to get crushed in 2020, with only 24 percent of respondents stating he “deserves to be re-elected.”

In a world where political survival often guides political decisions, Van Drew may think he has no choice. He is hoping a Trump endorsement might help him beat back Republican primary opponents, and that the district is red enough to vote “R” next November. 

Yet Van Drew is missing an opportunity to maximize the impact of such a move — because there is a science to party switching, and it often comes down to timing. 

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The 1994 “Republican Revolution” is one example of effectively implemented party switching. That November, the GOP picked up 54 House seats and eight Senate seats to claim both chambers. Although Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up Trump's remaking of the judicial system MORE was still in the White House, he was polling reasonably consistently in the low 40’s. The Democratic Party was in shambles. 

The loss of the House — a chamber Democrats had controlled for 40 years — was particularly devastating. Overnight House Republicans had turned a 41-seat deficit into a 13-seat lead. But they weren’t finished. 

According to a Republican leadership official at that time, the Republican National Committee and incoming House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) had devised a strategy to lure at least five Democrats to their side, pushing Democrats below 200 seats. “Once that happened,” the official said, “an important psychological barrier would be breached. And [Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt (D-Mo.) would find it harder to run roughshod with threats of what would happen when they got the House back."

Kicking the Democrats while they were down was a brilliant game plan. And it worked. Within a year, five House members and two senators had fled to the GOP, with rumors that others might follow. A party cannot rebuild while its pieces are disappearing.

If the 1994 elections were a repudiation of Democratic policies, the ensuing party switching was a repudiation of Democratic identity. All five House switchers hailed from the South, which long had been a bastion of Democratic politics. Their decisions opened the door for other conservative Democrats across the South to flee the party of their parents and grandparents. As the chief of staff of eventual switcher Mike Parker (R-Miss.) acknowledged at the time, once Parker joined the Republicans, “you can expect between 5 and 50 Democrats at the state and county level in Mississippi to switch parties.”

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By contrast, Van Drew’s expected abandonment of his lifelong party comes just days before Christmas — not an ideal way to capture national attention. Others are not expected to join him. Congressional Democrats are comfortably leading generic ballot polls. This is bound to be merely a blip in a historically volatile political season. 

So how might Van Drew maximize the impact of his decision?

Look no further than former Gov. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who delivered keynote addresses at the 1992 and 2004 presidential nominating conventions. The difference, of course, is that while his ’92 speech was delivered in front of Democrats on behalf of Bill Clinton, his ’04 address was given at the Republican National Committee on behalf of George W. Bush. A parade of GOP speakers preceded him. But Miller’s takedown of Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBiden soars as leader of the free world The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds MORE was uniquely powerful

Had Miller been a Republican, it would have sounded like yet another partisan attack. But as a Democrat — and as one of the most popular Georgia politicians of his generation — his barrage of belittling was brilliantly executed. On a national stage, he eviscerated Kerry as only a fellow Democrat could. 

Van Drew should have taken a page from Miller’s playbook. This week the House is expected to vote to impeach Trump. Few, if any, Republicans or Democrats are expected to cross over. No surprises, no compelling story. 

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As a Democrat, Van Drew could take to the House floor to lambast Democratic leaders and his party in general before a national audience. He could grandstand against perceived congressional abuses of power. He could strike at the heart of Democratic America, urging its to reject the politics of political destruction. He even might persuade other red-district Democrats to think twice before voting to impeach. 

Then, a few weeks later, after Trump is invariably acquitted by the Senate, with Impeachment Fever winding down, Van Drew could make his move: a press conference announcing his switch, surrounded by Republican party leaders, in which he would articulate why Democratic overreach drove him from the party.

Instead, he could be just another pro-Trump Republican — and no less politically vulnerable. This was a missed opportunity.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books. He has shared political insights across all media platforms, including CNN and Fox News.