The political moderate, a disappearing breed
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.”
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.
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.
“The cultural zeitgeist doesn’t seem to be favorable toward moderation,” Kabaservice said. “But independents are throwing up their hands and saying ‘I’ve become a voter without a party.’”
The percentage of Republicans who call themselves conservative grew to 72% in 2010, from 62% in 2002, according to a Gallup poll; at the same time moderates fell to 23% from 31%.
That’s a big change from when many Republicans, such as Snowe, were first elected to office.
“When I began my service, what bound us as Republicans were fiscal issues, but we respected one another’s views and differences,” Snowe said in an interview. Today, “those who are involved have hardened and politicized their views; there’s no compromising on the issues. It becomes about political messaging, who can advantage themselves in the next election.”
The thin majorities each party holds in Congress has only amplified partisanship, though not congressional popularity. Just 13% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to a recent Gallup poll. Approval reached an all-time low during last year’s debt-ceiling debate, which featured a partisan standoff.
“Nothing is getting done, and it’s driving me insane,” said Crystal Cox, 38, an Indiana homemaker who was planning to vote for Romney, who she considered a moderate, until he appointed Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. Cox opposes Ryan’s positions and said she would now vote for President Obama. “I was looking at Romney, thinking he’s more moderate, most likely to get things done,” she said.
But just as many voters appear to be turned off by moderates. New Hampshire Rep. Charles Bass is facing a tough reelection battle; in Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown has been losing ground in the polls.
Julie Brown, the longtime New Hampshire Republican, said voters in her district appeared to have been influenced by big billboards erected by her opponent that accused her of voting frequently with Democrats.
“I believe that if it’s a good bill, you work across the aisle,” Brown said. “But with the people who have taken over the Republican Party in this state — it’s their way or the highway.”