One of the key thematics of the first night of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention is unity: Democratic Party unity (as reflected in a major address from Bernie Sanders) and Joe Biden’s pitch that he can help restore at least a modicum of national unity. As part of the latter agenda, Democrats have scheduled speeches from four pols who have quite recently been prominent Republicans. The headliner is former Ohio governor John Kasich, one of Donald Trump’s most durable rivals in 2016. But also appearing in the “We the People Putting Country Over Party” segment are former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari, and 2010 California GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman. This may be an all-time record in the quantity and quality of cross-party convention appearances, certainly for Democrats.
Two Republicans did speak at the 2016 Democratic convention, but they were hardly big names: former Reagan speechwriter Doug Elmets and former Chamber of Commerce staffer Jennifer Pierotti Lim. Later in the general-election campaign, Hillary Clinton ran some ads aimed at Republican voters allegedly unhappy with Trump without a lot of effect.
Getting actual apostates to speak at your convention is tough, particularly since their value drops a bit when they actually join the vast ranks of party-switchers. Until fairly recently, perhaps a majority of southern Republicans were originally conservative Democrats, and in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast, ex-moderate Republicans turned Democrat have been common.
But probably because they have the smaller party coalition, Republicans have featured turncoat Democrats at their convention more often. The template was set when 1992 Democratic-convention keynoter Zell Miller of Georgia performed the same function at the 2004 Republican convention (the year he left the Senate while formally remaining the classic Democrat in Name Only). The idea we were supposed to take away from that appearance was that the Democratic Party had moved insanely to the left in the 12 years since Miller thumped the tubs for Bill Clinton, though anyone actually familiar with “Zigzag Zell” might think otherwise.
Four years later, Republicans pulled off another coup when they obtained an endorsement and convention speaking appearance from 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. This apostasy reflected his very close relationship with 2008 Republican nominee John McCain (who reportedly wanted to make Lieberman his running mate, an idea that anti-abortion activists shut down instantly) and his fury at Democratic progressives who helped deny him the party renomination for the Senate in 2006 (he won the general election as an independent).
And in 2012, Republicans featured a very recent party-switcher: former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, who was especially attractive to them as a Black politician who had delivered a seconding speech for Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008. Davis lost the Alabama Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010, after running well to the right of his party and his own record, and promptly moved to Virginia and became a Republican.
It’s unclear whether any of tonight’s apostates will soon formally become Democrats or will instead hold out hope that Trump is an aberration rather than the enduring ugly face of their party. But among the relatively small number of swing voters in the current electorate, four reasonably well-known Republicans willing to speak out against Trump may at least turn a few heads.