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Republican moderates stuck in the middle

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.



  1. Michael Heath wrote:

    Love your site. . .

    I am a moderate Republican who left the party the evening the GOP convention formally nominated McCain’s pick for VP, that being Gov. Palin of course (I was hoping the party would refuse to nominate her even though McCain picked her, they have that power). My quitting was after eight years of embarrassment and the realization that the party refused to reform and was instead committed an ideology proven to fail.

    While the current results are clear regarding the GOP not just becoming more conservative as you note, but also becoming less of a national party than one of a Southern party; I disagree INCUMBENT moderate Republicans are and will be threatened by their own party. It’s the Democrats taking them down given those areas are most likely not solidly red and the people have had enough of the GOP.

    From ’94 through ’04 when Gingrich and DeLay were running the House and how campaign funds were allocated for their members, Republicans believed that gerrymandering alone would continue to give them a majority in the House. They were therefore able to threaten incumbent moderates that if they didn’t vote a certain way, funds from the national party would be diverted either to other districts, or maybe to conservative opponents in the primaries. Those days have changed however.

    In the last two elections, it was not the GOP who threatened the moderates, but the voters who to some extent were voting against the GOP in general, even if their incumbent was considered an OK representative. In 2006 Bush was adamant that the party support Republican Senators perceived as liberal or moderate, and the party continued this pattern in 2008 in terms of campaign financing allocations.

    So while it will be interesting watching moderate Republican voting patterns in the next Congress where I too hope they frequently side with the Dems, I can’t envision threats of funding cut-offs in the primaries being a repurcussion given how the GOP has to now respect the fact that Dems are increasingly encroaching on even solidly-red districts or in the case of Senate campaigns, red states.

    Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Patric Castellino wrote:

    I do not live in the USA. As an outsider I think it might be a good thing if the republicans became more conservative, that way it will become easier to differentiate between democrat and republican. A slight polarisation of american politics might be a good thing. And moderate republicans will just have to choose sides

    Monday, January 5, 2009 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  3. George Laird wrote:

    Yaawwwnnn … this commentary is obviously written by a Democrat/liberal who is misreading the political winds. This sounds eerily similar to the Karl Rove “Permanent Republican Majority” line of thinking. That said that the GOP was taking over the middle which was forcing the Dems to the fringe and a permanent minority. We saw how that worked out.

    Monday, January 5, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    George, the difference is that when the Republicans came to power, it forced the Democrats to become more moderate. Many even accused the Dems of having no spine in giving in to whatever the Republicans wanted. What’s ironic now (and the reason I wrote this) is that with the Democrats coming to power, the Republicans are forcing themselves further into a corner.

    And I am not promoting a “permanent Democratic majority” at all. I would rather see the Republicans recover from their recent stupidities and become a vibrant party again, rather than becoming even more insular and fringe.

    Monday, January 5, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael Heath wrote:

    George Laird stated:

    That said that the GOP was taking over the middle which was forcing the Dems to the fringe and a permanent minority.

    I saw no evidence of either of those things happening. Mr. Laird may have mistaken conservative rhetoric for conservative governance, which differ significantly and almost always have. Reagan’s a perfect example of success in this regard, and Bush 43 an example of failure.

    The Dems have been moving to the center since Mondale was destroyed by Reagan and they realized past policies and they ideologies that created them were not viable, which is why they ignore their fringe element rather than allowing them to rule the party like the Republicans. In fact, the Dems got better, e.g., Clinton years.

    Currently, the GOP refuses to admit conservatism is a failure and instead of benchmarking past policy practices to find a new way, are instead enjoying a circular firing squad attempting to wean out any and all non social conservatives.

    What’s left in the Senate and the House are two primary examples – Sen. Shelby as a spokesperson for Senate Republicans on economic matters? He couldn’t pass a high school economics course; the GOP used to be filled with people who were economic experts, now they’re experts on the Southern Baptist church’s political agenda.

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 6:46 am | Permalink
  6. Daniel wrote:

    I’m torn because I see it both ways. On one hand, like my foreign counterpart above, I think that a greater differentiation between Dems and Republicans would be a good thing from a policy point of view. It would lead to livelier debates and a real feel that what was being fought over was meaningful, rather than just another shade of bland. I don’t think that the two parties being so close together is actually healthy for the country.

    On the other hand, I recognize that there are strong political and cultural forces keeping the parties toward the middle. Neither party wants to lose a long-term advantage by getting too far away from the middle. McConnell is very astute to emphasis this point. Likewise, neither party wants to create too much of a divide and let the growth of a third party take off. I’ve always insisted that in their shared hate for the center, the fringe elements of both parties actually have more in common with each other than they do with the moderates. But there is such a long-term mistrust that it would take a heck of person to unite them.

    Unlike the OP, I don’t think the Republican party will become more insular. There may be some of that going on, but historically whatever party is in the minority comes around sooner or later.

    Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 12:20 am | Permalink