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Posted at 4:44 PM ET, 02/ 9/2011

The myth of the dying moderate

By Aaron Blake

North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler, New York Rep. Joe Crowley and former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis are all noted moderates.

With the impending collapse of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council and Blue Dog Rep. Jane Harman's resignation this week, a familiar story line has emerged -- namely, that moderates are a dying breed.

Just look at the 2010 election, when 28 of 54 Blue Dog Democrats lost reelection or retired and 31 of 69 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition didn't return for another term.

Or look at 2006 and 2008, when the first Republicans to be kicked out of office were moderate Republicans like Reps. Chris Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Charlie Bass (N.H.) and Jim Leach (Iowa).

With the "beating" that moderate members have taken over the last three election cycles and the ascension of the tea party wing of the Republican Party, it might seem that moderates are indeed headed for extinction -- or at least in that general direction.

But it's not quite so simple.

There is certainly evidence of an increasingly polarized American electorate. We see it in poll after poll.

But pointing to the losses by moderate members in recent elections also misses the point, to a large degree.

The reason so many moderate Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 and so many Blue Dogs and New Democrats lost in 2010 is that these members tend to be the ones who represent the relatively few competitive districts on the map.

When there is a wave taking place, as there have been the last three election cycles, the first seats to go are going to be the ones held by moderates. Those defeats are less the result of their ideological leanings than the fact that these districts are so competitive that they require the incumbent to be moderate to get elected in the first place.

So really, it's not so surprising to see so many moderates swept up (or, more accurately, out).

What's more, when a moderate is kicked out of a swing district, he or she is often replaced by a moderate member of the other party -- or at least a member that learns quickly that he or she needs to be moderate if he or she wants to stay in office.

Take the new Republican majority in the House. For all the talk about how the tea party has pushed Republicans to the right, the most high-profile moderate group in the GOP -- the Republican Main Street Partnership -- has its most members ever, at more than 40.

Main Street members now chair the House Ways and Means, Homeland Security and Energy and Commerce committees, and the party has several so-called cardinals (members who chair subcommittees of the powerful House Appropriations Committee).

Of course, joining a moderate group does not make one a moderate. It's going to depend on how those lawmakers govern and vote in the coming months.

Even Main Street Partnership Chairman Tom Davis, a moderate former congressman from Virginia, says the GOP conference is more conservative than it has been in a long time.

Davis said moderates are not the "flavor of the month," be he also said they will still determine who controls Congress, and that Republicans need to move to the middle if they want to hold control.

"To win these swing districts over a sustained period of time, they've got to be moderates," Davis said.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who chairs the New Democrat Coalition, agreed. He said any return to the majority for Democrats would have go through groups like the New Democrat Coalition.

"The good news is, when we take back the House, we're going to take back the House in these swing districts with moderate Democrats," Crowley said.

You don't need to look too far in recent history to see what Crowley and Davis are talking about.

It was only a few years ago that Democrats made a calculated effort to recruit moderate Democrats and the strategy wound up delivering them a big House majority. In the process, the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition both soared to new heights, adding more than 20 members each between 2005 and 2009.

There's little question that the political winds of the day have pushed Republicans to the right, but the political winds of tomorrow could just as well force them to move to the middle. At that point, we may well be talking about a moderate revolution in the GOP.

Put plainly, there will almost always be room for moderates in a two-party electoral system. They may not be on top right now, and they may be downright struggling, but they will continue to be needed if either party wants to establish lasting control of Congress.

The Blue Dogs, in particular, are in a tough spot right now; no question. But whether it's them, the New Democrat Coalition or another moderate Democratic group, there is a role for moderate members in a Democratic comeback -- or in an extended Republican majority, for that matter.

By Aaron Blake  | February 9, 2011; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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