Several recent articles (LA Times, FiveThirtyEight) have pointed out the now uncomfortable position of Congressional Republicans, especially those in the Senate.

On the up side, with Democrats one or two votes away from the 60 they need to stop Republican filibusters in the Senate, moderate Republicans will be heavily courted during close votes. But the down side is what happens during the next election. If a moderate Republican votes against the Democrats, they will be viewed as obstructionist by the voters and might get voted out by an increasingly democratic constituency. But if they stick with the Republicans, they face being defeated by conservative Republicans during the primary.

Thus we have the ironic situation where two consecutive election routs for the Republicans, instead of driving them toward more popular positions, has made moderates (like former Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon or Chris Shays, the formerly last remaining Republican congressman from New England) easy targets for defeat. Republican Senator Susan Collins puts it bluntly:

I would hope that the more conservative members of our caucus would take a look at these election results. It’s difficult to make the argument that our candidates lost because they were not conservative enough.

But ironically, the Republican party is swinging more conservative, despite the fact that this will likely lead to more defeat.

Take the case of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a well respected moderate Republican who is up for reelection in 2010. Pennsylvania is a state where the electorate is becoming increasingly Democratic and the unions are gaining power. The last time a pro-labor bill came up in the Senate, Specter was the only Republican who voted to bring the bill up for a vote. If he votes to end a filibuster on a future labor bill, he will hand his expected primary challenger, Pat Toomey, a powerful weapon.

Because Pennsylvania holds closed primaries, only Republicans, who are becoming more conservative, can vote during the primary. This make it harder for moderates like Specter to win Republican primaries. But since the country as a whole is swinging liberal, these more conservative Republican candidates will have a harder time in the general election.

The last presidential election made things even more difficult for the Republicans, since the drawn out Democratic primary caused many moderates to switch their registration from Republican to Democratic, in order to vote in the primary. Many of these moderates won’t bother to switch back, making it even harder for moderate Republicans.

Personally, given the problem moderate Republicans will have getting reelected, and the attention that Republican Senators will get during close votes, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moderate Republicans decide that they are better off switching sides. And this will continue the vicious cycle, pushing Republicans into becoming an even more fringe party.