Original article published on Post Crescent by Mica Soeliner available here
Robert Meirkatze considers himself a recovering Democrat. He grew up in a union household with a family ‘dyed in the wool’ of the Democratic Party.
“What changed for me was the total disregard for fiscal responsibility and the insane eagerness to keep growing government,” Meirkatze said.
In an increasingly polarized climate, such shifts are more common but those who switch parties may face harsh personal and political consequences beyond uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table. For others, a loss of faith across the spectrum is leaving them politically homeless.
Meirkatze is one of the founders of #WalkAway Milwaukee, part of a national grassroots campaign started by New York City hairstylist Brandon Straka urging liberals to leave the Democratic Party.
Similar movements have started since 2016. For instance, #Blexit started by conservative media figure Candace Owens encouraged Black voters and liberals to turn away from the Democratic Party while the ‘Never Trump’ movement reflected conservative discomfort with Republican President Donald Trump.
Casey Auer, of Neenah, is a lifelong Republican who plans to vote for a Democrat for the first time in 2020. In 2016, she voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
“I have never supported Donald Trump,” Auer said.
Auer said she fell out of touch with the GOP party after Trump rose to power frustrated with elected Republicans for not speaking out against the president.
This time around, she said she’s aligning herself more with Democratic values and isn’t intimidated by some of the ambitious plans of candidates like California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“I’m not afraid of more progressive policies that maybe seem scary and like something we haven’t tried before,” Auer said. “It doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it’s a new way of thinking.”
Perry Pierre of Seymour, a self-described independent, said he’s grown frustrated with both parties and says his 2020 vote is up for grabs.
“The far-left and the far-right are running the show,” Pierre said. “I do not see our current political class as having the best interest of the country as its foremost responsibility.”
Frustrated Democrats seek alternative
In the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, the early debates and proposals show the party split between those who consider themselves moderates and those who lean further to the left.
Meirkatze worries about how proposals like tuition-free college and universal health care would impact taxpayers.
“Having a collective society where everyone is equally disadvantaged does nothing to keep raising the standard of living,” he said. “I want to keep my hard-earned money and I want everyone to have a opportunity to excel. It’s up to the individual to excel to the best of their ability.”
Meirkatze wrote in a WalkAway Milwaukee Facebook post in August that he voted for Trump in 2016, but is open about who he will support in 2020.
“It will go to the candidate with a reasonable chance of winning that I believe will do a better job of respecting the citizens of the United States who pay taxes, will do a better job of defending our nation, will do a better job of enforcing our laws, and will do a better job of following the Constitution as written,” he wrote. “If the Democrat candidate meets those criteria, I might vote for them.”
For born and bred Democrat Ed Hudak, now active with the Winnebago County Republicans, his decision to leave the Democratic Party came under President Bill Clinton during the controversy surrounding his political sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Hudak’s anti-abortion views also drew him further away from the party.
“The Democrats were increasingly looking at government as the salvation for people’s problems and they have become advocates of socialism not recognizing the millions of people that were killed under socialism in the 20th Century,” Hudak said.
Some Republicans reject President Trump
Defections are not limited to the Democratic Party. The term “Never Trumpers” rose among conservatives in the 2016 campaign that led him to the White House.
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, conservative talk show host Joe Walsh and former South Carolina Governor and Representative Mark Sanford have all announced plans to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination for president in 2020.
Jim Jackson of Brookfield officially left the GOP party this summer after 52 years of being an active Republican, even serving on the Wisconsin Prison Industries Board under former Gov. Scott Walker.
Jackson said both Trump’s presidency and Republican leadership in the Wisconsin legislature have driven him away from his roots and he will be campaigning for the Democratic Party in 2020.
“I’ll never be back,” Jackson said. “I was very much a supporter of Scott Walker until I saw a change in the legislature with the gerrymandering and how the current governor is being treated by the legislature. Gerrymandering here is an incredible affront to democracy.”
On the national scale, Jackson said he’s skeptical about the big ideas of some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, but is hoping a moderate candidate will win the nomination. So far, he likes former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg.
Switching parties brings campaign challenges
Kevin Nicholson, who ran against Leah Vukmir in the Republican U.S. Senate primary last year, has always been open about his past and being active in the Democratic Party. Vukmir beat Nicholson in the primary, but was defeated by incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the general election.
Nicholson’s past was brought up in ads and talking points by his opponent as a way to challenge his authenticity as a Republican.
“It was a very bad message because it says to people quite literally, if you’ve come to join our camp, we reject you and it was a very silly thing to do,” Nicholson said about the criticism.
Nicholson said his liberal past came from growing up in a strong Democratic household, but he eventually rejected the party’s economic policies and its growing use of identity politics to shape ideas.
“I saw the kind of embrace of racial tribalism which we see today large across our entire country,” he said. “That’s problematic. I didn’t like it. I don’t like the politics that come with identity. We should be embracing culture and ideas that cut across all people, and I really strongly believe that.”
Nicholson now leads a nonprofit organization called No Better Friend Corp., which advocates conservative public policy solutions.
For Waukesha alderman Aaron Perry, he made the opposite turn, actively switching from a Republican to a Democrat earlier this year. In 2014, Perry ran as a Republican candidate for State Assembly District 97.
Now, amidst his frustration with Wisconsin GOP leaders supporting Trump and the president’s often controversial rhetoric about other political leaders or issues, he’s officially left the party.
As an elected official, Perry worried about what the public would think with his open decision to switch, but found the majority of his constituents were accepting of his decision and believes local government still remains nonpartisan in its service.
“History has shown us that people who switch parties typically don’t have a lot of success,” Perry said. “Waukesha is of course known as being a very, very red area … that being said, if you do a good job, really people don’t care at the end of the day if you’re a Republican or a Democrat as long as you still take their phone call.”
Personal consequences of party switching
Studies show that political polarization has been on the rise since the 1970s and the 2016 presidential election reached a peak of animosity between Democrats and Republicans.
Many people who have switched parties have felt the bitter consequences that can come with being open about their changing political views, including strained relationships.
During Nicholson’s campaign against Vukmir, media reports showed his parents had been donating to Baldwin’s campaign and have become estranged from him due to politics.
“My parents made a decision to break with their entire family,” Nicholson said. “They have not talked with their grandchildren in years.They have not talked to siblings, nephews, nieces and so on because of the political situation and their beliefs.”
Auer, the ex-Republican turned Democrat, said political divisiveness has come to a point where staying silent is a better alternative to trying to debate ideas.
“There’s a reason you don’t talk about these things at dinner parties because people are very polarized,” Auer said. “Unless they’re open to having a discussion about it, you really can’t change their mind.”
Jackson, the longtime Republican turned Democrat, said he hides some of his views through exclusive social media channels to shelter his new political interests from his conservative family members and friends. His wife is a Democrat while his daughter is a Trump supporter.
“That’s difficult in the family,” Jackson said. “Family gatherings are awkward because of it. I don’t love them any less, but they make me mad. It’s really hard to be open.”