Yesterday Gray Tollison made headlines when it was announced that he was switching parties two days after being re-elected, without opposition, as a Democrat. A member of the legislature since 1996, Tollison served as Chair of Judiciary, Division B and Vice-Chair of Education over the last legislative term.
Over the past two decades, scores of Democrats have changed parties so this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. In the lead up to the qualifying deadline earlier this year we kept track of switchers. Following Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, we have counted 42 Democrats in Mississippi who have joined the Republican Party. This includes representatives and senators, but the Tollison switch may have signaled a bigger change.
For one, the ex-Democrats generally voted with the Republicans nearly all the time, if not all the time. That isn’t exactly the case with Tollison. Over the last four years, his grades from BIPEC have been D, B, C, and D. Among Democrats who are coming back, Nickey Browning, Haskins Montgomery, and J.P. Wilemon all would likely be considered more conservative. But the GOP is happy to have Tollison on their team. For one, Republicans now have 31 members, which is 60 percent of 52, a key number to be at.
The man who will soon lead the Senate, Tate Reeves, was happy to have Tollison on board: “I welcome Gray Tollison to the Republican Party and will rely on his experience next year in the Mississippi Senate. I look forward to working with Gray to try to make Mississippi the best place in America to do business and to keep it the best place to raise a family. Together we will work on bold solutions to help improve the education attainment level in our state and bring in more jobs and economic development. The election results on Tuesday and the news today that Gray Tollison will be joining the Republican Party speaks to the appeal of our conservative values and vision for moving Mississippi forward. Gray will be a great addition to our team.”
And Tollison said this about the switch: “As a Republican, I can still hold firm to my core political beliefs of making Mississippi a better place to live by supporting education, encouraging jobs and economic development, working for efficient and effective government, and improving our criminal laws. I am committed to moving Mississippi up and – going forward – it will be done with the help of the Republican Party.”
We know some Republicans, or conservatives to be more exact, aren’t exactly thrilled with this news. Before the new legislature is sworn in, and during the course of the next four years, I expect that we will see more Democrats change parties. This is what happens when Democrats finally lose their grip on the South. Look at the party switches in Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia as the GOP took control in those formerly Democratic states.
On one side you can argue that they are opportunists, but at the same time you can say they are joining the party of their true beliefs rather having to run as a Democrat for political reason. What we have seen in states like Georgia and Alabama, two states that have demographics very similar to Mississippi, is that few white Democrats exist anymore after the tide changes. Right now
22 21 remain in the House and 8 in the Senate. This is just what happens with the transition. For better or worse, the Republican Party is now where decisions get made and there is one very good way to be involved in the process- be a Republican.
Democrats have liked to write off the loss of previous party switchers as no big deal. Whatever they may publicly say about Tollison, they understand this represents something bigger.
Update: Almost on cue, we have our first switcher in the House. Donnie Bell, again certainly no conservative, has joined the Republican Party. Bell’s story is slightly different than Tollison’s. While Tollison received a free pass on Tuesday, Bell had to fight off a hard charging Republican opponent. As I said on Twitter, when people like Bell are switching parties, the floodgates have fully opened. This move also takes away that glimmer of absentee ballot hope that Democrats may have had of being in the majority.