The GOP's New Darlings: Moderates

They're the linchpin of Republican efforts to hold the House

Connie Morella of Maryland has long been the loneliest Republican in the House of Representatives. While her left-of-center voting record has endeared her to constituents in Washington's socially liberal white-collar suburbs, it has made her a marginal player in a GOP-led House that tilts sharply to the right. But after 16 years in office, Morella is getting the attention of party leaders. Republican bigwigs are volunteering to hit the hustings for her. And in June, President George W. Bush headlined a $300,000 fund-raiser for Morella, who faces her strongest challenge in more than a decade.

Why does everybody up there suddenly care about Connie? Simple: election-year math. The Republican Party desperately needs victories by Morella--and other endangered moderates--if it hopes to hold the House, where it has a perilously thin majority. And if the Democrats succeed in defeating enough incumbent moderates to win back the House, the chamber will wind up being even more ideologically polarized than it has been in recent years. Michael Franc, vice-president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, calls the increasing schism "a recipe for acrimony and legislative gridlock. It makes for all kinds of watered-down bills." It also makes for a Congress that relies more heavily on the Senate to tone down the ideological excesses of the House.

Most GOP moderates got into office because their centrist views helped them capture swing districts previously held by Democrats. Now, the volatile nature of those districts makes them particularly vulnerable in a year when many voters are uneasy, especially about economic issues. A CBS News/MarketWatch Poll released on Sept. 10 found 49% of investors surveyed think the country is on the wrong track.

Moderates face a string of other problems, too. A half-dozen are top Democratic targets in 2002. Some have depleted war chests after fighting off primary attacks from conservatives. Others, such as Morella, had their districts redrawn last year by hostile state legislatures to include more Democrats after the 2000 Census.

Even before a single vote is cast on Nov. 5, House Republican centrists are bracing for bad news. Already, five veteran GOP moderates are leaving the House--either because of retirement or campaigns for other office. Among the best known: Greg Ganske of Iowa, Marge Roukema of New Jersey, and New York's Benjamin A. Gilman. Add to that a half-dozen Republican women who are in the Democrats' sights, including Representatives Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, Anne M. Northup of Kentucky, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and New Mexico's Heather A. Wilson. Also vulnerable: Robert R. Simmons of Connecticut and James A. Leach of Iowa.

For Democrats, there is a certain irony in going after their sometimes soul mates in order to win the House. But, Dems ask, what good are moderate Republicans if they keep providing the votes needed for a right-wing agenda? "In principle, moderate Republicans should be able to foster compromise, but in practice that hasn't happened lately," says Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. For example, while Morella voted with her party only 40% of the time in 1998 when Bill Clinton was President, she fell into line 61% of the time in the first year of the Bush Administration. Among her controversial votes: the $1.6 trillion Bush tax package of 2001.

As the election nears, GOP moderates are trying to show voters that they are both relevant and independent. In one high-profile effort, the centrists are blocking spending bills until they win more money for education. And they point out that they provided key support for reform legislation ranging from the campaign-finance overhaul to stronger corporate accountability.

But with their numbers dwindling, moderates' victories are increasingly rare. And without some big wins this fall, the House Republican centrist could become little more than a historical footnote amid the partisan clamor.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.