Artur Davis, Former Obama Booster, Speaks the GOP’s Language

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Dave Martin / AP

Former Rep. Arthur Davis is seen after announcing his candidacy for governor on Feb. 6, 2009 in Montgomery, Ala.

Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama, appeared on a panel in Washington Thursday to discuss contentious voter ID laws. One might have expected Davis, an African American, to take the classic liberal line: that voter ID laws, under the cloak of stopping voter fraud, are conservative attempts to suppress the votes of young and minority citizens who traditionally lean Democratic. But Davis is not only a former congressman. As of May, the man who officially seconded Obama’s nomination for President is also a former Democrat. And he took a conservative position on election integrity as he continued to embrace the politics of the GOP.

The panel was hosted by the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation and True the Vote, an officially nonpartisan Texas group launched by the president of a local Tea Party. (The group registered as a non-profit but was recently ruled to be a political action committee illegally aiding the Republican Party by a Texas judge. They have appealed.) Davis’s presence at the front of the room, among right-leaners, was a statement in itself. “I want to start by showing you something,” he said as he took the podium. He pulled out his driver’s license and gave a coy speech about how it clearly wasn’t a fire hose or a club that sheriffs once used to beat people away from the polls. “Reasonable people shouldn’t disagree on one thing,” he said. “We have had our share of suppression, particularly in the American South. But this is not suppression … This is a simple little device that we use all the time.”

Since 2011, nine states have passed laws that require stricter proof of identity for voters. More than 20 others, many led by conservative legislatures, have proposed measures that require picture ID in order to vote. And those who support them couldn’t ask for a better spokesman. Davis is eloquent and quick with metaphor–and, more important, a man who physically and politically defies the negative stereotypes about who is pushing these laws and why. Whether it’s part of his plan or not, his advocacy for this policy is a fine way to ingratiate himself with what looks to be his new party.

Yesterday’s appearance wasn’t Davis’ first. He started making the rounds after he wrote a conversion op-ed in the Montgomery Advertiser last October. “I’ve changed my mind on voter ID laws,” he wrote. “And I wish I had gotten it right when I was in political office.” It was a break with tradition and his past stances, and it foreshadowed his break with the party itself. Davis had moved from Alabama, where he served from 2003 to 2011, to Virginia. Amid rumors that he might run against someone like Virginia’s Gerry Connelly, a Democratic Congressman who represents a Northern Virginia district, Davis published a blog post announcing the switch: “Cutting ties with an Alabama Democratic Party that has weakened and lost faith with more and more Alabamians every year is one thing; leaving a national party that has been the home for my political values for two decades is quite another … But parties change.” If he were to run again–which he said he wouldn’t after losing the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Alabama–it would be as a Republican.

A former co-chairman for Obama’s presidential campaign (and the first Representative outside Illinois to endorse the then-Senator’s presidential bid), Davis made an appearance earlier this month at a Northern Virginia Tea Party rally. According to the Birmingham News, the crowd “embraced” him “after he gave a fiery defense of conservative Republican policies and rallied the crowd to defeat his one-time political ally, President Barack Obama.” So it seems safe to say the departure is complete.

Of course, Davis is far from the first Democrat to become a Republican. Ronald Reagan did it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry did it. Former Sen. Arlen Specter did it. And the switches came with varying levels of success. Davis’ future in the Old Dominion is unclear. Regardless of whether he heads back to the House under a new mantle, in these pre-election months, he gives GOPers an opportunity to say there’s proof that the Democratic Party has gone astray, that Obama’s promises of 2008 have failed even the staunchest believers. So don’t be surprised if you see Artur Davis taking more stages before this presidential race is over.