TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democratic gains in state legislatures didn’t end with last November’s elections.
Over the past two months, as lawmakers were sworn in to office and this year’s legislative sessions got underway, Republicans in California, Kansas and New Jersey switched their party affiliations and became Democrats.
Their reasons varied, but the party-switchers have one thing in common: They say the GOP under President Donald Trump has become too extreme.
“The Republican Party, for all of its statements of having a big tent, continues to limit the tent,” said Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier, of Mission Hills, one of the switchers. “Those of us who were moderates are clearly not welcome.”
Bollier was one of four moderate Republicans from the Kansas City suburbs to switch parties.
The latest party-flip came this week in New Jersey. Republican state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, who represented a suburban Philadelphia district in southern New Jersey for nearly a decade, left the GOP, the minority party in both houses of the Legislature.
She cited the desire to “be a part of the discussion” in the Democratic majority but also said the values of the GOP had changed, saying, ” ... the party which once echoed the vision of Ronald Reagan no longer exists.”
When pressed on her switch at the statehouse Thursday, Addiego said she will be a more effective voice for constituents as a member of the majority, particularly on the state’s underfunded public pensions.
“In this environment, the state of New Jersey is really facing bankruptcy. And I really believe I can bring some of my values to this side of the aisle and have ideas put into action,” she said.
Her announcement came just days after California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, who represents San Diego, left the GOP. He said he differs with his former party on immigration, health care, gun control, abortion and gay rights.
The defections come after the Democratic Party won control of the U.S. House in the midterm elections and gained seats in 62 of the 99 state legislative chambers, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures (Nebraska is the only state with a single legislative chamber).
They also come at a time when the president’s approval ratings are dipping.
“This is largely a product of the Trump phenomenon,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “President Trump has blown the lid off of this party. It starts to look like a personality cult.”
In Democratic-leaning states such as California and New Jersey, the defections add to the GOP’s challenges.
Republicans will have to focus on state issues to regain relevance and votes, said Jack Ciattarelli, a former New Jersey Republican lawmaker who says he is planning to run for governor in 2021. In New Jersey, that means focusing on underfunded public pensions and affordability.
“In this era, there will always be those whose intense disdain for Donald Trump will determine their vote,” he said. “But I still believe there are a majority of New Jersey independent-unaffiliated voters and even some soft Democratic voters that will vote for the party that’s going to solve the various crises.”
The political landscape in the party-switchers’ seats has been changing for some time, which also helps explain the shifts.
In New Jersey, Addiego beat her Democratic opponent with 63 percent of the vote in 2013. By 2017, her winning percentage was cut to 52 percent. And last November, Democratic Rep. Andy Kim defeated then-incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur in the 3rd U.S. House district, which includes all the towns Addiego represents in the state Senate.
Maienschein’s Assembly District has become more Democratic since his first election, when it was considered safe for Republicans. Republicans had 38 percent of registered voters to Democrats’ 30 percent in 2012. Registration is now roughly even. Statewide, independents now outnumber Republicans in California.
In Kansas, the four defectors were all from a congressional district that Trump narrowly lost in 2016 and that elected Democrat Sharice Davids last year.
Unlike the lawmakers in California and New Jersey, they went from the majority to the minority party. Republicans in Kansas pointed to the fact that the lawmakers were moderates who voted mostly with Democrats, anyway.
Republicans in New Jersey and California criticized the lawmakers for their switch, characterizing it as a ploy to hold on to power.
“People will view Addiego’s party change for what is — an attempt at political survival,” Ciattarelli said.
But voters were split on how they viewed her defection from the GOP.
Dick Bozarth, a 79-year-old retiree from the construction industry, said at a diner in Medford, New Jersey, in the heart of Addiego’s district, that the change sends a bad signal.
“She wants to be with the radicals right now?” he asked. “Is that what she wants to do?” Bozarth said he’s voted for Addiego before but will not do so again.
Dave DeAngelis, a 65-year-old retired auto repair shop owner who recently moved to Berlin, a town just outside of Addiego’s district, said he’s supported her over the years.
He said that because of her long political experience in local and state office, her political party isn’t important to him.
“If she still holds her opinions, I don’t think that would make a big difference,” he said.
The change could help her get more done: “It’s very difficult to be a Republican in this state,” he said. “She wouldn’t get anything through the state Assembly because she doesn’t have the votes.”
Party switching can go in both directions. In Oklahoma, state Rep. Johnny Tadlock, who represents a rural district in the state’s southeast corner, switched to the GOP. Democrats have been losing seats there over the last two decades.
Associated Press reporters Geoff Mulvihill in Medford, New Jersey; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Don Thompson in Sacramento, California; and Sean Murphy, in Oklahoma City, contributed to this report.