Are GOP Moderates an Endangered Species?
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Rep. James Walsh's decision to retire from his 26th District seat after 20 years could well mean that the New York delegation, and the Northeast as a whole, will have one fewer Republican in the 111th Congress. We'll explore that more later in this trip, but first it's worth noting that Walsh's departure is part of an important and accelerating trend -- the demise of the House GOP moderate.
There is no perfect way to identify this shrinking centrist faction- among House Republicans, but the best available method is to look at the membership of the Republican Main Street Partnership. The group suffered several losses in the 2006 campaign cycle, but that looks to have been just a prelude to this year, as the RMSP now faces a striking stream of retirements and potential defeats.
The numbers tell the story. There are 23 House Republicans not running for reelection in November, and 10 of them, including Walsh, are RMSP members. That means about a quarter of the group's 42 House members are voluntarily leaving. And those retirements are disproportionate given the centrists' representation in the full House GOP Conference; RMSP members make up 43 percent of the retirees, even though the group only makes up 21 percent of House Republicans.
Beyond those retirements, two other RMSP members have already lost this cycle: Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.) was ousted in the GOP primary, and Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.) failed in her bid for the Senate. And those defeats may only be the tip of the iceberg. Looking again at The Rothenberg Political Report's race rankings, at least seven more RMSP members face competitive or potentially competitive contests in November.
All of this attrition comes on the heels of a 2006 cycle that had already knocked out some prominent moderates, including Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.) and Charles Bass (N.H.), who now serves as the RMSP's president.
A certain amount of churn happens every cycle, but the disproportionate departure and defeat of moderates has serious implications for the House GOP, both on the agenda the party advances and its future ability to regain the majority.
Many of the retiring centrists will take with them significant seniority and clout. Walsh, for example, holds a coveted slot atop an Appropriations subcommittee, as do retiring Reps. David Hobson (Ohio) and Ralph Regula (Ohio). Departing Reps. Tom Davis (Va.) and Jim McCrery both hold the top GOP positions on full committees. So the moderate wing of the party will be not only be smaller in the 111th Congress but potentially much less influential.
There is a growing sentiment that if Republicans lose more seats in November, the current slate of GOP leaders may face challenges. But none of the members seen as potential challengers for those jobs are moderates. As of this writing, House Republicans are in their second week of floor protests over the lack of a vote on oil drilling, and while that effort has grown to include nearly every member of the party and is popular across the GOP board, the primary drivers of the movement are members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, not the RMSP.
How might this trend hurt Republicans in future elections? The fallout is visible right here in Syracuse. Walsh has been able to hold this seat for two decades even as his district has become progressively more blue, and even as voters here have voted for Democrats in recent presidential races. His departure makes the task of holding this district that much harder for the GOP. The same is true just a few miles west of the Capitol, where Davis' retirement has put Virginia's 11th district in serious peril for the Republicans. It's difficult to imagine Republicans retaking the House anytime soon if centrists in swing seats continue to leave in droves.
The primary strategic divide within the Republican party currently is over what went wrong for the GOP in 2006, and how to right the ship. Conservatives argue that the party needs to get back to its basic principles -- smaller government, lower taxes, stronger national security and family values -- in order to reinvigorate the dejected base. Centrists contend that Republicans lost in the last election and will lose again because the party has forgotten how to appeal to centrists and independent voters.
Within the House GOP, conservatives today appear to have the upper hand in that argument. And when the dust settles after Election Day, their advantage will likely be even larger, as a significant number of centrists will be gone for good.
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