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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms September 6, 2011

Rick Perry says he switched to GOP at a younger age than Reagan did

On his Aug. 30 radio program, conservative commentator Sean Hannity noted that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s years-ago switch from the Democratic to the Republican party Puts him in the same company as the nation’s 40th president.

"You’re sort of like Ronald Reagan, you feel the Democratic Party left you?" Hannity asked.

Perry replied that he’d had a conversation with Reagan’s son Michael, a political consultant and former radio host. "I told Michael Reagan the other day … ‘You know, I love your dad, and he was part of the reason I became a Republican,’ but I said, ‘I became a Republican sooner in my life than your dad did.’ "

Perry and Hannity shared a laugh over that. But that light moment left unresolved how old each leader was when he made his D-to-R leap. Did Perry beat Reagan to the flip point?

We’ll take a look at Reagan first. In March 2010, PolitiFact Florida rated True the claim that "Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican."

Historian Edward Yager, author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, told PolitiFact Florida that Reagan, who was born Feb. 6, 1911, "was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for (Democrat Franklin Roosevelt) in 1932, when he was 21."

Yager said that he hadn’t seen copies of Reagan’s voter registration cards but that "virtually all the sources that refer to" Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat. Yager also noted that Reagan "has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for (Roosevelt) four times" and then for President Harry Truman, a Democrat, in 1948.

Later, while still a Democrat, Reagan began supporting Republican presidential candidates. Melissa Giller, director of communications and programs at Reagan’s presidential library, told PolitiFact Florida that Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 — at ages 41 and 45, respectively — and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960 "while remaining a Democrat."

Perry and other Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to debate at the Reagan library, in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 7.

The library’s website says Reagan registered as a Republican in the fall of 1962, when he was 51. According to the site, a woman interrupted Reagan while he was speaking in favor of Nixon’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in California to ask him whether he had yet to register as a Republican. "When he said, ‘Well, no, I haven’t yet, but I intend to,’ down the center aisle through the audience came a woman who declared, ‘I’m a registrar,’ and placed a registration card in front of him," the site says. "In front of his audience, Ronald Reagan officially joined the Republican Party."

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In her 2010 email to PolitiFact Florida, Giller pointed to the famous Reagan quip that Hannity echoed on his show: "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.''

Other studies of Reagan also trace his party switch to 1962, including Yager’s book and a 1982 Reagan biography by Lou Cannon, which says Reagan "was an active Democrat" in 1952, when he married Nancy Davis, "and would remain a registered Democrat for another decade."

In 1962, Cannon writes, when Reagan was approached by California Republicans to help campaign on their behalf, he told them that he "didn’t want to be a professional Democrat campaigning for the Republicans" and would re-register as a Republican. "He did so, at a subsequent political meeting where he spoke on behalf of the ill-fated Nixon campaign against Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown," Cannon writes.

So, by several accounts, Reagan was 51 when he became a Republican, although he began backing GOP presidential candidates a decade earlier.

How old was Perry, born March 4, 1950, when he made his move?

We’ve looked at Perry’s political past in previous fact-checks, reporting that Perry won his first election as a Democrat, taking a West Texas House district seat in 1984, when Democrats controlled the Legislature and the state had had just one Republican governor since Reconstruction. He won re-election in 1986 and 1988 before switching parties in 1989 to challenge Democratic Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower in 1990 — a race that Perry won in an upset.

The biography on Perry’s presidential campaign website agrees with that account.

A July 14 Texas Tribune story says that during his years in the Texas House, Perry was far from liberal. "Perry, a young rancher and cotton farmer, gained an early reputation as a fiscal conservative," the story says. "He was one of a handful of freshman ‘pit bulls,’ so named because they sat in the lower pit of the House Appropriations Committee, where they fought to keep spending low."

The Tribune story says Perry announced he was changing parties on Sept. 29, 1989, during a press conference outside the Texas Capitol. "I intend to vote the same convictions," Perry said then, according to the Tribune. "The only difference is there will be an ‘R’ beside my name."

On the day of the press conference, Perry was 39 years old.

We rate his statement as True.

Our Sources

Sean Hannity radio show, interview with Rick Perry, Aug. 30, 2011 (about 10:25 mark)

PolitiFact Florida, "Crist says Reagan was a Democrat before converting to GOP," March 30, 2010

National Public Radio, "The Life of Ronald Reagan: A Timeline"

Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library, Reagan’s "Life & Times"

Edward Yager, Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, 2006

Lou Cannon, Reagan, 1982

PolitiFact Texas, "Debra Medina claims Rick Perry was a Democrat and Al Gore’s campaign manager," Jan. 16, 2010

Rick Perry presidential campaign website, "about" page

Texas Tribune, "Rick Perry: The Democrat Years," July 14, 2011

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Rick Perry says he switched to GOP at a younger age than Reagan did

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