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McCain Mulled Party Switch As Recently As '01

Josh Marshall noted this morning,” I was wondering when this would come up. As a lot of us remember, John McCain was very close to leaving the Repub

Josh Marshall noted this morning,” I was wondering when this would come up. As a lot of us remember, John McCain was very close to leaving the Republican party in 2001 and becoming either a Democrat or, much more likely, an independent a la Jim Jeffords who would caucus with the Democrats. The Hill gives the story another shake and talks to folks like Daschle and others who were in on the negotiations.”

The funny thing is, The Hill hasn’t really given the story another shake; it’s just that the story from last March has suddenly been re-discovered by political observers. Mitt Romney began emphasizing this over the last week, and slowly but surely, it’s apparently gaining traction.

To be sure, it seems like the kind of story that could undermine McCain’s bid quite a bit.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was close to leaving the Republican Party in 2001, weeks before then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) famously announced his decision to become an Independent, according to former Democratic lawmakers who say they were involved in the discussions.

In interviews with The Hill this month, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and ex-Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) said there were nearly two months of talks with the maverick lawmaker following an approach by John Weaver, McCain’s chief political strategist.

Democrats had contacted Jeffords and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) in the early months of 2001 about switching parties, but in McCain’s case, they said, it was McCain’s top strategist who came to them. (emphasis added)

According to the story in The Hill, Weaver asked Daschle and Downey in March 2001 why Democrats hadn’t reached out to McCain to switch parties. “Well, if the right people asked him,” Weaver said, according to Downey, adding that he responded, “The calls will be made. Who do you want?”

After the lunch, Downey immediately contacted Daschle, who initiated a series of conversations with McCain about how to execute a party switch, including issues such as committee assignments and seniority. Other Dem senators involved with the discussions confirmed these events.

So, what happened? Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, one of three Republican senators Dems urged to switch, left the GOP and gave control of the chamber to Dems. At that point, Chafee and McCain then broke off their discussions.

Is the story true? McCain denies ever having considered caucusing with Dems, but the story is hard to dismiss out of hand. Indeed, Downey and Daschle had little reason to make up the story 10 months ago, when it initially ran.

Indeed, Downey denied any political motivation, saying he is still friends with Weaver and “deeply respects” McCain. “I would have been happy to come forward last year or the year before if someone had asked … There were meetings in offices. You can’t deny [these meetings took place]. They occurred.”

Downey added, “It’s my hope that John McCain is the Republican nominee because from my perspective, although I think Democrats are going to win, if they don’t, McCain is the sort of man I would feel comfortable [with] as the president of the United States. I’m not trying to hurt him.”

What’s more, if the point of this story was to undermine McCain’s campaign, it wouldn’t leak in March 2007; it would leak much later, during the heat of the campaign. Such as, you know, now.

Nevertheless, conservatives, many of whom forgot about this story months ago, are starting to pick up on it again.

Will McCain finally face questions about what transpired? Will Republican voters care? Will the media? I guess we’ll find out soon.

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