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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.

By Ben Pershing  |  August 12, 2008; 10:40 AM ET
 
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Comments

Moderates are an endangered species in both parties. This trend is not serving the country well. Candidates have to appeal to the fringes during the primary season, since those supporters are the most energized and vocal in the early stages. Then, once they get the nomination, they have to tack to the center, and then are accused of betrayal and/or flip-flopping on their positions. Of course, this can be solved by gerrymandering districts, which leads to more extremism. I'm beginning to suspect that American political system is fundamentally broken, in large part due to the above.

Posted by: billp | August 12, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

What is clear in this year's election is that EXPERIENCE has not served the American people and the country very well. The Republicans served their PARTY and its business base-wrapped up in "compassionate Conservatism" and cloaked in Evangelical extremism. The Republicans did not govern well in the majority or the minority. Iam sorry to see Wayne Gilchrist go. He kept his principles while in Congress. Not many can say that.

Posted by: CarmanK | August 12, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

EXPERIENCE is overrated. I used to think "Term Limits" were unAmerican, but I am not so sure these days. The Republicans have clearly demonstrated that their PARTY loyalty and loyalty to service of W has outweighed and blinded their "loyalty" to the country and the people they serve. When it comes down to it, the Republican Party fights for business interests. Their mantra is "what is good for business is good for America." I am sorry to see Wayne Gilchrist defeated. He is a man who never got lost in the Washington muck.

Posted by: CarmanK | August 12, 2008 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps those departing moderates and progressives ought to learn some basic arithmetic. They only need to draw forty percent of the vote to dominate American politics, if that forty percent straddles the center of the political spectrum. If those disaffected moderates had ever tried to build a true, centrist, moderate coalition in Congress they would have consistently organized Congress, and could have driven the national agenda with ease. Instead they kept selling out to the Rabid Right, because that was what had leveraged the Republican Party, and the Moderates can't seem to spell anything else when choosing their affiliation.

I could run the Country for the next half century, could I live that long, and never break a sweat, given a sensible centrist party to work with. But too many Republican center leaning politicians cant stand the derision from the Right when they try to move to the center, and the Democrats are getting the center handed to them, but can't seem to figure out how to own it.

But let the Progressive and Moderate Republicans go. They are defeated, beaten men, defeated by the Party they should have abandoned years ago far more than by the party they could have shouldered out of the way to claim their position in the middle of the road, the High speed lanes.

Wise up, armadillos, and lead.

Posted by: ceflynline@msn.com | August 12, 2008 10:14 PM | Report abuse

Oh God your funny Benny Boy, so Dream On!
Dream On,as it will never happen,not with
losers like Mad Madame Nancy Pelosi,The
Flip Flop Queen,Hopeless Harry Reid,Howard
Screamer Dean, Windsurfer John Kerry,Teddy
DWI Killer Kennedy and the biggest loser of
all His Arrogance Empty Suit Der Leader
Messiah Barack Hussein Obama running the
out of touch with reality dimwit Democrat
Party. No Obama 2008 or Ever! NOBAMA!

Posted by: Sherry Kay | August 13, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Republican moderates are not endangered. They are extinct. Soon, maybe, conservatives will be endangered.

Posted by: castanea | August 13, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I find it simultaneously distressing yet amusing how both the columnist's article and blog commentary decry the loss of moderates, and the inability of the Democrats to manage from the center. The electorate in the United States is actually more highly populated with moderate independents than Republicans or Democrats, but no serious Independent Party has emerged, even though there is substantial ability to raise money for its support through the internet. The two party system in the United States lends itself to polarization, because their control forces candidates or members of the party to toe the line on ideology or positions held by their leadership. When leading party members do declare themselves as "independents" they are still forced to align themselves; Lieberman, Jeffords and Weicker are examples. Many independents need to understand that Americans are turned off by the "big tent" philosophy of the major parties which is more of a recruiting and money-gathering tool which lays out a platform that is seemingly flexible, but is often violated when certain circumstances arise. This constraint on thinking also hampers our government because "the party leaders" must be consulted before important decisions are rendered, instead of considering facts first and setting a course of action that benefits the majority of the people without regard to party interests. It's too bad that some independents like Nader are so abrasive and egocentric, because their positions are thoughtful and smart, but their personalities have limited comity to get things done as an executive.

Posted by: ChrisHahin | August 13, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

The people retiring have had enough of the b.s. the dumbocrats have been handing out, and the fact that they were not elected to serve for life, like all the dumocrats think. They will all start looking like Byrd before long, because they can't hold a job anywhere else but there, and they aren't about to leave, until they carry them out on a stretcher. I don't believe the founding fathers intended for those jobs to be for life. I think they wanted the congress to turn over every few years, so some new ideas could be brought in. The old crap that the house has now is pathetic, and needs a complete overhaul. I wish they had term limits.

Posted by: elmerck | August 13, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

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