A month after losing her re-election bid, Rep. Christine Watkins is leaving the Democratic Party and joining the Republicans in hopes she could return to the Legislature in 2014.
Watkins, who was a Blue Dog Democrat at the Legislature and the last rural member of the Democratic caucus, was defeated by little-known Republican Jerry Anderson.
Watkins said Anderson crushed her in Duchesne County, which was added to her district in redistricting and saw a huge spike in voter turnout because it became the first county in the state to require voters to vote by mail.
"I wanted to come back and represent the area and [being a Republican] is the only way I can win because of Duchesne," she said in an interview.
Anderson, she said, barely campaigned. His financial disclosures show that nearly half the $2,365 he spent campaigning went for a suit from Mr. Mac and other clothes.
But he won, Watkins contends, because he is a Republican and also because the region overwhelmingly went for Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama.
"It's not leaving the party to leave it. It's switching to be able to have a chance at winning again," she said. "I genuinely love my part of the state. I've lived in Emery County. I've lived in Carbon County. Duchesne was new to me, and that may have been a disadvantage."
Watkins, a two-term House member, has been a pro-energy development Democrat who supported legislation to have the state take control of public lands. Her ties to the Democratic Party have largely centered on education, since she is a retired school principal.
Watkins said she was raised in a strong Republican household, but changed over education issues and served for six years as the county party secretary.
Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright issued a statement Tuesday praising Watkins and welcoming her to the GOP.
"The Utah Republican Party welcomes Representative Christine Watkins and all others who share the conservative vision of making Utah a great place to live, work and raise a family," Wright said. "Her years of experience in education, understanding of rural Utah and commitment to Utah's public lands will be a valuable asset to the Republican Party."
It has been uncommon for legislators to switch parties. Former Republican Rep. David Hogue ran as a Democrat and lost in 2010. And Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, was appointed as a Democrat to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Gary Cox, but soon changed his party affiliation.
He was re-elected after redistricting.
Hutchings said that, for him, changing parties was the right decision, since he is socially a moderate, but fiscally very conservative. But the move isn't easy people carry a grudge, and if Watkins is doing it out of political expediency, voters will see through the change.
"The backlash on that was brutal," Hutchings said. "And unless it's truly honestly in your heart, if you're doing it to try to gain a political advantage, the repercussions of that will be so severe I don't think she'll recover from it."
Incoming House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said she hadn't talked to Watkins about her decision, but she is saddened that she would leave the party.
"She's a fine member of our caucus. It remains to be seen what the voters in the area will do," Seelig said. "As a Democrat, I haven't given up on that area."