A few days before Christmas in 2009, Rep. Parker Griffith—a fast-talking, white-haired former oncologist from North Alabama who'd joined the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition after his election to Congress the year before—stood before a mass of reporters in his hometown of Huntsville wearing a red tie. This was fitting attire, since Griffith was there to announce that he was doing something rare for a freshman member: switching parties.
To many, his move smacked of pure political expediency, with the 2010 midterms shaping up as difficult for even the most conservative Southern Democrat. But Griffith said it had more to do with Obamacare, which was being hotly debated at the time; he called it "a major threat to our economy" and "a threat to our nation." In his brief time in Washington, he said, he had become convinced that "there is no room, really, in the Democratic Party for a pro-life, pro-business, pro-Second Amendment, conservative businessman."
Five years and two failed congressional campaigns later, the Democrat-turned-Republican is once again a Democrat. In fact, he's the Alabama Democratic Party's long-shot challenger to GOP Gov. Robert Bentley. Griffith's running a vigorous, but decidedly uphill, campaign that—ironically enough—is showcasing his partial embrace of the Affordable Care Act.
The story of Griffith's political peregrinations is not just his story—it's also the tale of what's happened to conservative Democrats across the Deep South. Griffith once appeared to symbolize a resurgent Democratic Party in the region; Alabama sent him and two other Democrats, Bobby Bright and Artur Davis, to Washington in 2008, joining Blue Dogs from Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi in swelling the coalition to 54 members, a record high. Two years later, after the 2010 Republican wave, half the Blue Dogs were gone, including all three of the Alabamians. (Today only three Deep South Democrats remain in the coalition, which was cut approximately in half again in 2012.) The former Blue Dogs haven't lost their lust for office, but they now inhabit a kind of political wilderness, eschewed by Democrats as too far right and by Republicans as too far left. "They're so middle-of-the-road," Bright says, "that they don't fit either party."
"Blue Dogs—heh," Griffith says. "They'll have to put them in the Smithsonian."
Griffith found out the hard way. Republicans in Washington crowed about flipping the Democrat to their side, of course, but Griffith says he wasn't prepared for what awaited him back home. "I got back to Alabama, and Democrats hated me and Republicans said I was a RINO." He lost the GOP primary by nearly 20 points. He tried again in 2012 and lost by almost double that margin. In both races, he was haunted by his 2009 vote for Nancy Pelosi for House speaker.
In 2013, Griffith dropped his party affiliation entirely, telling a local paper, "I've been in both parties, I've seen them up close and personal. Neither one of them are worth a damn." Just a few months later, though, he approached state Democratic leaders about rejoining their ranks; Griffith says he made his decision when Bentley turned down federal funds for Medicaid expansion. The party's executive committee blessed Griffith's return. Soon after, he was running for governor.
Griffith's ability to finance his own campaign no doubt looked attractive to a state party that could certainly use some benefactors. Like other Deep South Democratic parties, Alabama's has fallen on lean times in recent years, left rudderless after former Gov. Don Siegelman was sent to prison on controversial corruption charges in 2006. Last year, the party's state chairwoman reported that the Democrats' landlord and utility companies wanted the party out of its headquarters because of unpaid bills. (Bit by bit, the party has worked through its debts; Griffith helped out with a $2,400 contribution this spring.) Meanwhile, the broke—and broken—party is fighting with itself, riven by factions. "Literally," Davis says, "what you have now is a few groups fighting over who's going to be captain of the Titanic."
Not surprisingly, Griffith waxes a bit more upbeat. "We have the high side of the issues," he says of Alabama Democrats. Along with calling for a lottery to support public education, Griffith has spent much of the campaign hammering Bentley for his refusal to expand Medicaid, which could add as many as a quarter-million low-income Alabamians to the rolls, according to a White House study. "I was there the night the Affordable Care Act passed," Griffith says, studiously avoiding the law's widely used nickname. "I'm a cancer specialist by training, and I knew it was a confusing, bad bill. But there were things in the Affordable Care Act that were good. Staying on parents' health insurance and expanding Medicaid were part of that, and I believe it has to happen in Alabama."
But even though he's back in the Democratic fold, Griffith still scorns both parties. "OK, you want me to put on the Democrat jersey or the Republican jersey?" he says. "Well, neither team can score. Neither team has a quarterback, a coach, a vision."
His onetime Blue Dog compatriots, Davis and Bright, have also struggled to find their footing in the new political landscape. Davis, once seen as a national rising star among Democrats, ran for governor in 2010 but lost in a primary to a more progressive candidate. He moved to Virginia, became a Republican, and considered running for Congress under his new party banner; now back in Alabama, he is pondering a run for mayor of Montgomery in next year's nonpartisan election. "I thought about the one kind of job where you can get something done in the U.S. right now—build coalitions and operate across party lines," Davis says, "and that's being mayor." He knows, however, that after his party switch he'll be viewed as suspect by some Democrats and Republicans alike.
Bright, once a popular mayor in Montgomery, largely withdrew from public life after he lost his reelection run for Congress (as a Democrat) in 2010. In the aftermath, he says, he asked himself, "What's the most honorable profession, in my experience, that our country needs?" Since then, he's been raising cows and growing hay on a farm just outside of Montgomery—though he still clearly itches to return to politics. Last year, he let slip to a local news outlet that he was thinking of running for the state Senate as a Republican. But he never pulled the trigger. "I've genuinely purged myself of any kind of political persuasion, honestly," Bright says. "If you asked me today whether I'm a Democrat or Republican "... " he trails off. "Well, the only way to win right now in Alabama is as a Republican." But he can't take the plunge, he says. "If I was to run for something, I'd have to run as an independent," Bright says. "I can't talk the way I talk and have the support of a party."
Bright, who's now 62, feels the clock ticking on his and Griffith's political ambitions. "In the South, you gotta be a Republican to get a majority of the votes," he says. "Now, I don't think it's going to be that way forever, but for the next decade or two. That can add up to a lot of time, and we don't have a lot of time."
When I ask Griffith what the future holds for politicians like him and his former compatriots, he chuckles wryly. "Blue Dogs—heh," he says. "They'll have to put them in the Smithsonian."