05/23/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

Switching Party Affiliation: Sometimes It Works, Sometimes It Doesn't

This election cycle features two prominent party switchers. Former Democrat Gene Taylor represented South Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives for 22 years. He is now running as a Republican to regain his old seat. In contrast, Charlie Crist, who served as Governor of Florida as a Republican, is now running for Governor as a Democrat.

Party switchers are nothing new in American politics. Most switchers use a version of Ronald Reagan's famous phrase when he defected from the Democratic Party and became a Republican: "I didn't leave the Democratic party, my party left me."

Gene Taylor was popular in his District. He was a vociferous advocate for the needs of his constituents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Representing a District with many military veterans, he was a champion of healthcare services for veterans. In addition, Taylor was a vociferous advocate for adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He was one of just four Democrats to vote against the flagship legislative priorities during the first two years of Barack Obama's Presidency. These priorities included The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, the Obama Stimulus proposal, and legislation imposing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.

While Taylor's voting record and constituent service record were hard for Republican Steven Palazzo to run against in 2010, Palazzo had two arrows in his electoral quiver: Taylor's Democratic Party affiliation, the fact that Taylor voted for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House in 2009. It worked. Gene Taylor was defeated in his bid for re-election.

Gene Taylor's change in party affiliation from a conservative Democrat to a Republican is not that unusual, whereas Charlie Crist's transformation from a center-right Republican to a center-left Democrat is quite atypical.

As a conservative Democrat, Taylor often bucked his party. Knowing that he represented such a conservative Congressional District, the Democratic leadership did not retaliate against Taylor for his failure to vote the party line.

For most of the 20th Century, both major parties sported a liberal and conservative bloodline. Southern and Western Democrats like U.S. Senators James Allan of Alabama, John C. Stennis of Mississippi, and Richard Russell of Georgia had voting records well to the right of many in the Republican Party. Gradually, Conservative Democrats either retired from office and were succeeded by Republicans, lost in their re-election bids to Republicans, or fled their partisan ancestral homes, relocating to the Republican Party.

The record of Southern Democrats who switched parties is mixed. One electoral success story is U.S. Representative Phil Gramm (D-TX). In 1982 he became the only member in the 20th Century to resign his seat and to run for re-election as a member of another political party. U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA) dislodged Gramm, a conservative Democrat, from his membership on the coveted U.S. House Budget Committee for his role in being the lead Democrat sponsor of the Gramm-Latta Omnibus Reconciliation Bill, which effectuated Ronald Reagan's economic program. Subsequently, Gramm resigned his U.S. House seat and left the Democratic Party to run as a "Republican" for the same seat in the Special Election, which he won.

By contrast, in 2009, freshman U.S. Representative Parker Griffith (D-AL) defected to the Republican Party. All but one of his Capital Hill Staffers resigned. Many Republican voters who had voted against him in 2008 were not ready to support him simply because he became a Republican. Griffith's political gamble backfired. He lost the Republican Primary in a landslide to Mo Brooks, despite spending $50 per vote compared to just $10 per vote spent by Brooks.

In challenging Palazzo in the 2014 Republican Primary, Taylor faces a similar problem in that many Republican activists worked feverishly for Palazzo in 2010, and they may not see Taylor as a "genuine" Republican.

Unlike Taylor, and other Southern Democrats who switched party affiliation, Crist is following an atypical path. He was elected Governor of Florida in 2006 as a traditional center-left Republican. He branded himself a "pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax Republican." Crist even supported an amendment to the State Constitution disallowing gay marriage.

After being elected Governor, Crist governed as a center-left Republican. He became a prominent voice in the party nationally, and in 2008, Republican Presidential candidates sought his endorsement. His endorsement of U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was credited in some political circles as giving McCain a victory in the Sunshine State Primary.

In 2010, with the support of the high command of the Republican Party and the support of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (RSCC), Crist launched a bid for the U.S. Senate. His nomination was considered a foregone conclusion until former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio picked up a tidal wave of support from the proliferating Tea Party movement. Sensing a primary loss, Crist abandoned his primary bid and ran as an Independent. Rubio won the seat.

Since that loss, Crist has shifted his ideological allegiance to the center-left. He has also switched his party registration, becoming a Democrat. Crist now supports abortion rights and gun control legislation, and supports same-sex marriage.

Political parties are often accepting of party switchers if the party has been out of office for a relatively long period of time. First and foremost, they want a winner, even if they are not enthusiastic about supporting a particular candidate. The fact that polls show Crist beating Republican Governor Rick Scott strikes a resonate chord with many Florida Democrats.

Similar to Crist, in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term as President, Republicans nominated Utilities Executive and Corporate Lawyer Wendell Willkie, despite the fact that he had been a delegate to the 1932 Democratic National Convention, and had only become a Republican in 1939. Many delegates to the Republican National Convention believed the moderate non-politician was the most electable candidate. After Willkie lost the election, he joined Roosevelt in urging aid to the allied powers. U.S. Representative Dewey Short (R-MO) called Willkie, "a bellowing, blatant, bellicose, belligerent, bombastic, bombinating blowhard." Willkie sought the Republican Presidential nomination again in 1944, but his candidacy gained little traction. He dropped out of the sweepstakes after an embarrassing loss in the Wisconsin primary.

Taylor and Crist must prove that their party switch was a principled, rational move, not an act of political opportunism. Taylor can make a convincing argument that he was never a partisan Democrat, and that like his former constituents, he believes the GOP is a better home for his ideological convictions. He can also argue that with the Republicans likely to maintain their majority in the House, he would be more effective for the district. It will be a herculean task for Palazzo to effectively tether Taylor with Pelosi, given the fact that Taylor has pledged not to vote again for Pelosi as Speaker (Ironically, Taylor is actually trying to tie Palazzo to Pelosi by arguing that "Steven Palazzo voted with Nancy Pelosi to cut the Defense budget by $490 billion.")

Charlie Crist will have a harder time convincing the Florida electorate that his switch of ideology and party affiliation was an act of conviction rather than political opportunism, and Rick Scott will likely try to caricature him as a political chameleon. But Crist has the advantage of still scoring high marks from Florida voters from his time as Governor, and the fact that Scott's job approval ratings are currently below 50 percent.

For both Taylor and Crist, it is imperative to identify themselves strongly with their new party so that they come across as true believers. They must not make the same mistake as Wendell Willkie, who when speaking to Republican audiences would often refer to the audience as "You Republicans." This amplified the argument of Willkie's GOP critics that he was a political interloper and an opportunist, rather than a true believer.