GOP Moderates: Down, But Not Out

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., prepares for a televised debate with Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse Monday, Oct. 30, 2006, in Cranston, R.I. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)
They call themselves "Main Street Republicans," moderates consigned to the back alleys of politics by their own party. But despite a severe bruising in the fall election, this minority within a minority finds itself with new avenues to explore, including working more closely with Democrats.

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a leading voice of GOP moderates in Congress, lost seven of its 48 House members to Democratic challengers in the November election. Two other senior members, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., are retiring.

The group also saw Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., one of its eight Senate members and possibly the most liberal Republican in Congress, get swamped by the Democratic deluge.

"We had some difficult losses, people who had been very vocal and active in terms of being moderates," Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., a Main Street leader, said in an interview. Castle said his group still can be a force in the new Democratic-controlled Congress by working with conservative and moderate Democrats.

Holding one-fifth of the GOP's seats in the House, Republican moderates will be needed by Democrats, particularly on such issues as expanding stem cell research, improving access to health care and promoting alternative energy. Republicans moderates also hold the key to any Democratic hope of overriding vetoes by President Bush.

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a Main Street member who also heads an overlapping group of centrists called the Tuesday Group, said he plans to work with the Blue Dogs, conservative House Democrats who are demanding a bigger role in policymaking because of their pivotal role in the elections.

Kirk is promoting a "suburban agenda" that includes such issues as tax-deferred savings programs for children and protecting suburban open space.

The election losses for GOP moderates were all the more painful because moderates on the Democratic ticket flourished, helping carry their party back into the majority. Indiana, a solid red state, went from a 7-2 Republican advantage in the House to a 5-4 Democratic edge because three Democratic moderates ousted conservative incumbents.

"Indiana is really more moderate than it is Republican," said Robert Schmuhl, a political analyst and University of Notre Dame professor. "That is something we learned from the election."

But GOP moderates tend to come from more diverse, Democratic-leaning districts that make them vulnerable when the political winds shift. That was the fate of losing Main Street members Reps. Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.

Another victim was Rep. Jim Leach, a 15-term lawmaker from Iowa who opposed the war in Iraq and supported abortion rights. Other defeated GOP Main Streeters were Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley of New Hampshire, Sue Kelly of New York and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania.

Another departed member is Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned in September after it was revealed he had sent sexually explicit electronic messages to former House pages.

Main Street executive director Sarah Chamberlain Resnick said fiscal conservatives in her group who share some views with Democrats on social and environmental issues were also hurt because "the Republican Party wasn't a big enough tent" for them.

While the new Democratic majority ranges in political philosophy from liberal Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi of California to conservative freshman Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback from North Carolina, Republicans concentrated on shoring up their conservative base, Resnick said.

"If it all adds up to just appealing to a more conservative base, then we are dealing at the margins in terms of gaining seats," Castle said of fellow Republicans.

Moderates were heartened that Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, considered to be open to all wings of the party, defeated conservative standard-bearer Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in party leadership elections earlier this month. But Main Street's only spot in the leadership went to Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, one of its more conservative members, who was elected GOP conference vice-chair.

Pence made a name for himself by heading the Main Streeters' conservative counterpart, the Republican Study Committee. It went into the election with 110 members, almost half of all House Republicans. Despite GOP losses in the election of 30-plus seats, the RSC expects to come close to maintaining its current membership level.

Meanwhile, of the 13 Republican freshmen in the next Congress, only one, Dean Heller of Nevada, has said he is joining the Main Street caucus.