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A third party emerges — within the Republican Party

| Saturday, March 19, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

A 49-year-old Western Pennsylvania police officer, who spent 28 years as a registered Democrat, decided he'd had enough last week.

He stood up from breakfast at a local diner, climbed a flight of stairs at the county office building, explained his intentions to a clerk – and, when he left, was for the first time in his adult life a registered Republican.

“This gives me a voice in the upcoming primary,” he said, citing strident Democrat municipal politics as the reason to withhold his name.

“It's not like I wasn't going to vote Republican in the general election anyway. I've generally voted conservative for the past 15 years, and the only reason I never changed was because I wanted the ability to vote in local elections” for mayor or city council, which typically are decided in the Democrats' primaries and not in general elections.

He is not alone. Nearly 59,000 registered Pennsylvania Democrats have changed their voter registration since January.

Some cynics speculate that it is a coordinated effort by Democrats to extend the chaos of Republican primaries that have billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump leading the winnowed GOP field. Yet that suggestion is, to many other observers, pure fantasy conjured up by pundits still unable to comprehend Trump's success.

This is pretty much a case of Reagan Democrats finally making it official, said Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst.

That college-educated policeman, who fits none of the stereotypes associated with media classifications of Trump supporters, has not ruled out Trump as his choice.

His simple explanation: I am a conservative, I vote conservative, I want to participate in the party I identify with most.

The popular view is that conservative Democrats now switching parties are of a certain type – uneducated whites bordering on racists, who live in left-behind towns in rust-belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia or farther south, who have just found conservatism through the rough rhetoric of Trump.

Truth is, these Democrats have voted Republican in midterm elections for more than 10 years, as well as in local and state races, according to Kondik.

“They have sat out presidential races beginning with Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama,” he said.

They don't just live in dying towns and are not under-educated; a sizable number of them live in middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs of cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

All you have to do is look at the 913 state legislative seats, the majority of state chambers, the 69 congressional seats, and the dozens of governors' offices held by Republicans – in states such as Pennsylvania where Democrats' registration is double that of Republicans – to understand that these voters have sided with the GOP for a very long time.

“This isn't an Obama thing,” said Kondik, but a case of a party that cut them out: “The Democratic Party became the non-white party, became the environmental party, became the socially liberal party, became the anti-gun party.”

“Those voters who are supportive of New Deal-era entitlements like Social Security go away and try to fit in with supply-side, Club for Growth Republicans – and chaos ensues,” he said of the realignment of the parties and of Trump's appeal.

Kondik, who has been observing this realignment since the 2006 midterms, always thought that it would lead to a third-party “with a candidate the exact opposite of Donald Trump or former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” he said, describing the current GOP frontrunner and the ex-mayor as both elite, establishment billionaires.

“I was thinking someone more like Jim Webb,” he said, referring to the former U.S. senator of Virginia who has been both a Republican and a Democrat and who speaks eloquently on populist sentiments.

Turns out, we are seeing that third-party phenomenon happening — but within the Republican Party, not as a separate entity. And it has caused nearly 27,000 registered Republicans to switch to the Democrats in Pennsylvania.

In short, aside from the fact that no one is going to be happy and the disruption will continue within both parties, the likelihood of a third party finally emerging will only increase.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (szito@tribweb.com).

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