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Double whammy

Will the GOP's purity test cleanse the party of its moderates and mavericks?

August 12, 2007|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is The Times' national affairs correspondent.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is an ardent, unwavering supporter of the Iraq war. In the House of Representatives during the 1990s, he served as a manager of the Republican majority's impeachment case against President Clinton.

Yet for Marty Eells, an emergency medical services training officer here, Graham is an insufficiently reliable conservative. Eells is angered by Graham's criticism of President Bush on issues like the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism.

"He's made remarks and comments he doesn't have any business making," Eells said.

Other conservatives in this dependably Republican state are unhappy with Graham for supporting the failed Senate effort to legalize illegal immigrants and for his role in the 2005 bipartisan compromise that preserved the right of the Senate minority to filibuster judicial nominees. In the midst of this unease, several local Republicans -- including the lieutenant governor -- have floated the possibility of challenging Graham from the right for the GOP Senate nomination next year.

In Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays has a different problem. Last year, he narrowly survived a Democratic tide that left him the sole Republican holding a House seat in all of New England. Now, at a time when disapproval of Bush and the war appears even more intense across the Northeast than it was in 2006, Shays has already attracted a well-funded Democratic opponent (Jim Himes, a former Goldman Sachs vice president) who will face him in 2008.

Shays and Graham embody the two forms of dissent from the dominant conservative orthodoxy in the modern Republican Party. In one category are traditional moderates like Shays, who pursue a centrist course, especially on social and foreign policy issues, but whose numbers have relentlessly declined for decades. In the second are maverick figures like Graham or Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who are too conservative to be considered moderates but too eclectic and unpredictable to be considered reliable allies by the right. Both of these groups -- moderates and mavericks -- are under siege at a moment when Republicans are struggling to reach independent and swing voters disillusioned by Bush and the war.

In the coming election, moderate and maverick Republicans face mirror-image risks. Because the maverick conservatives tend to represent more solidly Republican areas (like Graham in South Carolina or Hagel in Nebraska), they face relatively less danger of losing to Democrats in a general election next fall. But precisely because they represent conservative regions where demands for ideological purity are more intense, the mavericks are confronting an elevated risk of challenges in party primaries.

Hagel, the most outspoken Republican critic of the war, has already drawn a serious primary opponent (Nebraska Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning) for next year, and Graham and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens could face challenges in the primaries too -- which would make 2008 the first time since 1978 that more than one Republican senator has faced such a challenge. More than half a dozen House Republicans, all of them in Republican-leaning districts, also have attracted primary challengers.

Some moderate Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, also have confronted arduous primaries from conservative challengers in recent years, and Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, a leading House centrist, is facing one now. But for most of the remaining GOP moderates, primaries are no longer the principal danger. Instead, because they mostly now represent swing or even Democratic-leaning constituencies, the moderates face a growing danger in their general election campaigns. In 2006, the Republican Party suffered heavy general election losses in the affluent, white-collar suburbs where moderates tend to be located and where they once thrived (especially along the coasts and in the upper Midwest). And "the environment for them in 2008 could be as bad or worse," said independent election analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Historically, moderate Republicans offered the most important voice of ideological diversity in the GOP. But like the American auto companies or the Wednesday night bowling league, moderate Republicans have been in decline for so long that decline itself has become part of their tradition. In their heyday, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, formidable Senate Republican moderates like Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland often tipped the result on issues relating to civil rights, the environment, judicial appointments and national security.

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