Double whammy

Ronald Brownstein is The Times' national affairs correspondent.

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.


Since the 1970s, though, they have steadily lost ground, undermined by the same two forces evident today. Conservative primary challengers ousted Case in 1978 and Javits in 1980 and weakened Brooke before he lost a general election in 1978. The larger problem has been the decline since the 1970s in the number of voters willing to split their ticket between a presidential candidate of one party and congressional candidates of the other. That has made it more difficult for each party to elect House and Senate members behind enemy lines -- in the states that usually prefer the other party in presidential campaigns. The two big losers in that generation-long sorting-out have been moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans, primarily from the Northeast.

Taken together, these forces have winnowed the number of Republican moderates, especially in the Senate. Fewer than half a dozen Republican senators (such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine) still qualify as moderates. Their numbers are so attenuated that they now exert influence almost solely when they align with maverick conservatives (such as Graham, Hagel or Virginia’s John Warner), whose numbers now top those of true moderates. But even combined, the two groups’ size in both congressional chambers remains modest. In the House, for instance, only 20 Republicans (out of more than 230) voted against a majority of their caucus even as much as 15% of the time during the last Congress.

The upcoming election may further deplete the ranks of both the mavericks and moderates. Bush’s focus on mobilizing the conservative base, while generally helping Republicans in conservative areas, has alienated independent and moderate voters in the suburban districts many moderates GOP officeholders represent.

The moderates would benefit if the GOP picks a 2008 presidential nominee who can compete in Democratic-leaning terrain, but even that would not eliminate the risk of further House and Senate losses driven by Bush’s intense unpopularity in those areas -- like the 24% approval rating he posted last month in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, in traditional Republican strongholds -- the red places -- the maverick conservatives are confronting a party base frustrated and agitated over the party’s weakened situation. Each of this year’s primary challenges feeds on different grievances, but they draw on a common sense among conservatives that the party lost its way during its 12 years in the congressional majority. To that tinder, opposition to Iraq (in Hagel’s case) and support for immigration reform (for both Hagel and Graham) has introduced a powerful spark.

“When we are now questioning ourselves ... and wondering who we are as Republicans, everyone who has been up there and part of the process should not sleep well if they’ve got a challenge in their own party,” said longtime South Carolina GOP strategist Warren Tompkins, a former advisor to Graham.


Centrist Democrats aren’t immune to these trends. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, for instance, lost a Democratic primary last year (before winning reelection as an independent). But for all the fulminating against centrists on liberal websites, the internecine warfare isn’t burning as hot among Democrats.

This difference is rooted in the fact that the Democrats today are much more of a coalition party than the Republicans: Polls show that only about half of Democratic voters consider themselves liberals, while three-fourths or more of Republicans call themselves conservatives. That means to win elections, Democrats depend more than Republicans on the votes of moderates -- which compels them to accept more dissent from party orthodoxy.

The question for Republicans, as they try to dig out from the collapse of Bush’s second term, is whether they can rebuild a majority coalition without tolerating more dissent and diversity as well.