Magazine article Politics Magazine

It's No Party for Republican Moderates: But Is the Center Gone for Good?

Magazine article Politics Magazine

It's No Party for Republican Moderates: But Is the Center Gone for Good?

Article excerpt

WAYNE GILCHREST HAS JUST ABOUT HAD IT with his party, and he won't shy away from telling you about it. In March, the eight-term Maryland congressman and longtime Republican moderate lost a primary to staunchly conservative state Sen. Andy Harris, who won largely on the strength of votes from what Gilchrest terms "Karl Rove's party."

"They knew how to get the base out," says Gilchrest sarcastically." Just say 'conservative' 15 times in one sentence."

It's not that his campaign didn't see it coming, Gilchrest says. For months the objective was getting moderates out to the polls-voters who simply didn't turn out come Election Day. If they had, says Gilchrest, he would have surely won. His defeat puts the Maryland Republican among the ranks of GOP moderates who, in the past few years, have been all but ousted from a party that seemingly has no place for middle-of-the-roaders. Many of them have chosen to retire or have lost their re-election bids. The vast majority of those seats have been taken over by Democrats.

The further bad news for moderate stalwarts is that the political bench is looking pretty thin. It's why groups like the Republican Leadership Council, an organization that promotes a "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive" GOP, are beginning to work from the ground up, backing candidates for city and county councils and working to turn the tide in state legislatures--all in the hopes of stemming the influence of the right wing and bringing the party back to the center of American politics.

"We have to get back to the basic, block-and-tackle, down-in-the-trenches political grunt work that Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition leveraged to such great success," says Pate Abel, an RLC volunteer and organizer in Missouri, and author of the blog, The Moderate Voice. On a grassroots level, he says the GOP's moderate wing must be rebuilt the same way the Christian right took over the party: fielding candidates at the most local of levels and getting moderate Republicans elected to school boards, city councils, state legislatures and ultimately Congress.

Abel says it's as basic as "mining the grassroots of the party, building and working databases of moderate Republicans, writing letters and e-mails." But these party building tools are all too foreign to moderates, who don't have any real organizing infrastructure.

"We really need to pay more attention to what's happening at the state and local level," says Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who now heads the RLC."[Since 2006] we've seen nine state legislatures flip from Republican [control] to Democrat. That has enormous implications when it comes time to re-draw districts." Come 2010, the redistricting process is one Whitman fears will make it even harder for moderate Republicans to win and hold onto congressional seats, as a slew of marginal GOP districts may very well be redrawn into territory that's more favorable to Democrats.

There's certainly reason to worry. The list of names that make up the elected leadership of middle-of-the-road Republican groups like the Main Street Partnership is littered with retirements, recent stinging defeats and potentially vulnerable incumbents. Of the 40 members of Congress who are associated with the Main Street Partnership, 10 are retiring in 2008, one lost in a high-profile Republican primary to a conservative opponent, and another 10 are in the electoral crosshairs of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The backlash against the GOP in 2006--largely over the war in Iraq--didn't spare moderate Republicans, many of whom were far less hawkish on the war. At least six moderates lost their seats in 2006 and several others retired. In the Senate, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee was one of the biggest casualties. In the House, the most notable loss was longtime lowa Rep. Jim Leach, who served in Congress for some 30 years, much to the chagrin of many conservatives. …

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