Centrist lawmakers find themselves on losing end of 2012 races

Next year’s Congress might be the most polarized yet thanks to the loss of centrist lawmakers — a trend emphasized in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primaries.

“The middle is getting squeezed,” ex-Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday.

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Retirements are thinning centrist ranks. Several centrist lawmakers — including Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) as well as Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) — have opted to retire instead of facing tough reelection bids.

On top of that, most of the top targets in each party are the centrists: Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) on the Republican side and Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) for the Democrats. The two Senate seats most likely to flip, in Nebraska and North Dakota, were held by centrist Democrats who are now retiring.

Many centrists face constant challenges because they tend to represent swing areas where the other party is favored. Because of this they are susceptible to wave elections, as happened to many such Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and to centrist Democrats in 2010. They also are more likely to face primary challenges. 

Davis said a combination of factors had contributed to this: gerrymandering that packs partisans into one district or another for a party’s political benefit, campaign finance laws limiting how much parties could influence races while allowing hard-line outside groups to spend unlimited amounts, and a 24-hour news cycle dominated by voices on the left and right.

Outside groups also have played a major part of party polarization, particularly the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super-PAC that targets incumbents of both parties. 

Pennsylvania’s primaries on Tuesday saw several centrists lose to candidates who have greater appeal to the party faithful. 

Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and Tim Holden (D-Pa.) lost largely because they’d broken with their party on major votes. 

Businessman Steve Welch (R), a centrist Senate candidate who had the state Republican Party’s endorsement, lost his primary to take on Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) to the more conservative businessman Tom Smith (R), who slammed him for voting for President Obama in 2008. 

In the 2010 election cycle, 20 of the 34 Democrats who voted no on the final healthcare vote either retired or lost their reelection bids. But fewer Republicans are facing tough Tea Party challenges this year, as opposed to the last cycle.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) survived his party convention last weekend largely because he charged hard to the right. Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) has stuck by his previous votes and refused to tack to the right, and he now appears to be the underdog in his primary with Tea Party-backed Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R).

Hatch’s main opponent has not been Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R), but instead the Tea Party-affiliated FreedomWorks, while the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and FreedomWorks have spent much more against Lugar than Mourdock has.

The Blue Dogs are emblematic of this problem. The group’s membership shrank from 54 members before the 2010 election to 25 current members. Many of those are retiring or are in tough races again this year, making it unlikely the group will bounce back to its previous numbers anytime soon.

“Redistricting and a broken, polarized Congress have made it tough to be a moderate in Congress,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a co-chairman of the group, said in a statement to The Hill.

Altmire’s and Holden’s defeats leave 23 Blue Dogs who could theoretically win next election or be replaced by likeminded Democrats. But five are retiring, including Ross, and all of those are in Republican-leaning seats that will be hard for Democrats of any stripe to win. Five more members are facing tough races: Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), who recently joined the group.

The group does have some chances to shore up its numbers: Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who was in the Blue Dog Coalition, looks likely to win her race, and there are a handful of seats where conservative Democrats have a fighting chance. But those races are unlikely to outweigh their losses.

Ross told The Hill that he was confident the Blue Dogs would be able to expand their numbers after this election and said their message reflected what most Americans thought on the issues. But he admitted that the group faces some serious structural disadvantages, especially in a year in which House lines were redrawn because of the redistricting process.

“The Blue Dogs are in the middle and we’re used to being attacked from both sides,” he said. “While our membership roster may vary from Congress to Congress, our messages of fiscal responsibility, bipartisanship and common sense will always endure and will continue to resonate with the American people.”

But the Blue Dogs have lost their power within the party, largely because of the last election. When Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), a Blue Dog leader, challenged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to head the caucus in 2011, he lost by a wide margin; many of those who would have been in his corner had just lost their reelection campaigns.

Davis also said that people’s disenchantment with the parties was making it worse. Because more centrists on both sides were registering as independents and not voting in primaries, those who do show up tend to be the most partisan and ideological of voters.

Davis’s own career is an example of this: The GOP lawmaker had held a Democratic-trending district for years, and when he retired it was won by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). While Connolly faced a close reelection contest in 2010, this cycle the redistricting process redrew the districts to protect incumbents of both parties, meaning that neither he nor most Virginia House Republicans are likely to face a tough reelection anytime soon. 

Davis also seriously considered running for the Senate in 2008 before deciding against it — largely because as a relatively centrist candidate he would have had a tough time making it through the state party’s convention, which helps decide the nominee.

“Incentives drive behavior, and the incentives right now are to watch out for the primaries,” he said. “Less than a quarter of the House is competitive, and it drives Congress toward the extremes. In primary elections compromise is punished, it’s not rewarded.”


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