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The political moderate, a disappearing breed

Moderate politicians are being pushed aside, particularly in the GOP, in a partisan environment that frustrates many voters, even as most of them gravitate to the sharply partisan candidates.

October 22, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Julie Brown, 77, a veteran Republican in the New Hampshire Statehouse, lost a primary battle to a tea party candidate. She was attacked as being a stooge for unions. She soon changed her affiliation to independent.
Julie Brown, 77, a veteran Republican in the New Hampshire Statehouse,… (Alana Semuels, Los Angeles…)

ROCHESTER, N.H. — It wasn't until the mailers began targeting her as a union stooge that Julie Brown realized how much her party had changed.

Brown registered as a Republican on her 21st birthday in 1956. She was an Ike girl in the 1950s, riding a bandwagon and handing out pins dressed in a red felt skirt, blue sweater and white blouse. She worked for Maine's Republican Sen. William S. Cohen in the 1980s, and organized on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. before last winter's New Hampshire primary. She has served in the New Hampshire Statehouse for 24 years.

But in September, she lost in the primary to a tea party Republican after being targeted by conservatives as someone who worked with Democrats and "union thugs," she said, waving a postcard that showed a fat man smoking a cigar on one side and her name on the other. A few days after her defeat, she went down to town hall and changed her registration to independent.

"I thought when I went to meet my maker, it would be as a Republican," said Brown, 77, shifting through a pile of mailings that had targeted her. "But the Republican Party abandoned me."

INTERACTIVE: Battleground states map

Brown was a moderate Republican, a disappearing breed in state and national politics. Some, like Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, have been defeated in primaries. Others, like Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, resigned after years of pressure to conform.

The decline of moderates is one element in an increasingly partisan environment that has left many voters frustrated, even as the majority of them gravitate to the sharply partisan candidates. The decline has been seen in both parties but more notably, of late, among Republicans.

"People are too partisan," said Charles Lussier, a New Hampshire independent who longs for a day when he will see people post yard signs supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates. "We've become like children in the playground, it's us against them."

The tension between moderates and conservatives has played out in the presidential race. Mitt Romney was criticized throughout the primaries for the moderate positions he held as governor of Massachusetts. (The more conservative positions he embraced to run for president now have been targeted by Democrats.)

Even as it eased his nomination, Romney's positioning has isolated him from some voters. New Hampshire resident Kimon Zachos disagrees with Romney's current stances on issues like abortion, which the candidate largely opposes.

"I'm a fiscal conservative and a liberal on social issues, and that, in the past, has been the way the Republican Party went," said Zachos, who last voted for a Democrat for president in 1956. "But now it's gone over the cliff. I'm going to vote for Obama."

Primaries are often the most troublesome challenge to moderates, since they lack an energized donor base and can't count on crossover votes from independents or members of other parties. That's something that former Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut learned this year when he ran in a Republican Senate primary against professional wresting magnate Linda McMahon.

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Shays lost the Republican primary by a landslide, getting just 27% of the vote. He spent just $1.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McMahon's campaign, which she self-financed, reportedly spent more than $11 million.

"The moderate voter is not as motivated to contribute," Shays said. "But the majority of people are purple, not red or blue — and they don't get to decide who is the nominee. They're stuck with whoever is running."

In New Hampshire, some are taking it upon themselves to make it easier for moderates to get elected. In 2010, conservatives swept into the New Hampshire House and tried to restrict abortion rights and repeal a law legalizing gay marriage. Now, a few state groups are raising money for candidates willing to compromise.

"Our goal is not to create a third party, but rather to create a caucus that allows people in the middle to get together," said Paul Spiess, a former state representative from Amherst, N.H., who helped found Restore the Center. "We're trying to create some space for candidates who want to run as moderates, but who didn't see support within their own parties to do so."

Moderates were the strongest faction of the Republican Party in the 1960s, said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of the "Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party." But as Southern whites fled to the Republican Party after Democrats embraced the civil rights movement, their conservative views on social issues rose in importance. The tea party and free-spending outside groups have accelerated the shift to the right.

INTERACTIVE: Presidential campaign contributions, by state

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