WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords became an important person in the spring of 2001 when he cast his lot with the Democrats. People who had ignored him during his 12 years in the Senate now referred to him glowingly as "a statesman." Jeffords handed control of the Senate to the Democrats when he became an Independent, stopping the Bush agenda where it stood.
The move earned him "strange new respect," as it is known in Washington. His opinions now carried new weight. The New York Times printed his words. Sunday network talk shows invited him to be a guest. People bought his book.
The time in the media spotlight was new and wonderful to someone who was previously best known as a member of the now-defunct "Singing Senators" quartet.
If he ever realized it was all about George W. Bush, Jeffords never let on.
The more than 400 elected Democrats who became Republicans over the past 10 years were not feted as Jeffords was. Few if any were accorded the kind of attention that Jeffords, former New York congressman Michael Forbes and the handful of others who left the GOP received.
In 1994, seven Democrats -- Mike Parker of Mississippi, Greg Laughlin of Texas, Nathan Deal of Georgia, and Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana in the House, and Alabama's Richard Shelby and Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell in the Senate -- crossed the aisle following the GOP landslide.
That same year, party switchers made the GOP the majority party in the South Carolina state House of Representatives. In 1999, two Democrats in Kentucky switched, giving the Republicans a majority in the state Senate for the first time.
Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode crossed the aisle in two steps. In 2000, he left the Democrats and became an Independent. In 2002 he was re-elected to his U.S. House seat as a Republican.
Georgia Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue is a former Democrat, and had to resign the presidency of the state Senate when he became a Republican several years ago. After he defeated the incumbent Democrat who was governor this past November, four of his former Senate colleagues also became Republicans, giving the GOP a 30-to-26, first-ever majority in the state Senate.
Mississippi Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck changed her affiliation to Republican several weeks ago. Several of her state Senate colleagues are expected to follow her across the aisle before year's end.
These are examples of a powerful and continuing trend in American politics. During the eight years that Bill Clinton and Al Gore led the country, elected Democrats changed their affiliation to Republican at the rate of close to one per week.
John Morgan of Applied Research Coordinates, a Republican consulting firm, is an expert on the issue. Over the past 10 years he has been involved in close to 100 Democrat-to-Republican Party switches and says the experience is national in scope.
"Most of the switches are in the South and the border states but they are by no means confined to those regions. They occur in the Northeast -- Pennsylvania, New York, Maine -- in the Midwest and the upper plains. It's a national phenomena," Morgan says.
The reason so many Democrats are switching is, according to him, largely ideological.
"As the gulf widened between the two parties in the latter half of the 20th century -- with the Republicans moving right and the Democrats moving left -- the level of partisan acrimony increased but the country chose up sides. The number of Democrats who have switched to the GOP reflects that fact," Morgan says.
The Republicans won the popular vote for Congress, for U.S. Senate, and for governor in November 2002. And, though the numbers are not yet final, the GOP also appears to have won the popular vote for state legislators for the first time in decades. "If that isn't a majority party, I don't know what is," Morgan says.
"Eisenhower carried a few states for president," he says. "Nixon carried a few. Ford carried several. Reagan and George H.W. Bush carried the region for president. But it wasn't until 1994 that the Republicans carried a majority of the congressional and Senate seats in the south." Morgan says that was a major political breakthrough, changing the dynamics that have governed the country since the end of the Civil War.
This is, in part, the reason why elected Democrats becoming Republicans is not seen as a big deal by those who cover politics. It is no longer an uncommon occurrence, having begun in earnest, especially in the South, after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.
"Now, when a Democrat becomes a Republican, it's a common affair and it usually fits ideologically. In most places around America, the switches have been from Democrat to Republican, reflecting the ideological and political tensions between the urban and rural areas and the increasingly divergent political cultures that have existed side-by-side for several centuries," Morgan says.
In Morgan's analysis, the waves of immigrants who settled and built the nation had a strongly conservative and independent streak, something their descendents continue to exhibit. The latter immigrant groups who settled in urban areas and remained there had a much more European way of looking at politics and what the government was supposed to do.
"If you look at the presidential results for 2000 by county, you see that the urban areas went heavily for Gore while the rest of the country was for Bush," Morgan says. "In most of America, a Republican becoming a Democrat is like a Catholic converting to Islam. It's something that just doesn't happen very often if ever."
The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.