Centrist Republicans pin their political hopes on the class of ’10

Centrist Republicans in the Senate are hopeful that victories in the November election will swell their ranks, reduce conservatives’ influence and make it easier to defy GOP leaders.

Much attention is focused on the likely election of conservatives such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Mike Lee in Utah, and possibly Sharron Angle in Nevada and Marco Rubio in Florida.

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But if centrists such as Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) win their races, it might soften the influence of conservatives in the 112th Congress.

 Congressional experts and lawmakers say a strong class of centrists could blunt the influence of conservative freshmen sent to Washington by Tea Party voters.

Senate Republican centrists have become a rare breed; Democrats find themselves repeatedly turning to the same small group of Republicans to help them pass bills.

 Centrist Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) have often been subjected to intense scrutiny and pressure as the votes that can make or break President Obama’s agenda.

 Democrats have expressed frustration that they have not been able to pick off Snowe or Collins to pass more legislation, but lawmakers say it’s tougher for the two to buck their party without more support from fellow centrist Republicans.

 Centrist Republicans used to hold lunch meetings every Wednesday — earning the nickname “The Wednesday Club.” It was the counterpart to the conservative Republican Steering Committee weekly lunches, now hosted by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

 But the Wednesday Club doesn’t exist anymore as a centrist Republican policy forum. It switched its meeting time to Thursday and usually includes a broad swath of the conference.

 Things could change next year if the bloc of centrist Republicans grows significantly.

 Castle in Delaware, Kirk in Illinois, businesswoman Carly Fiorina in California, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and Gov. John Hoeven in North Dakota have a good chance of capturing Senate seats. All, except Crist, would replace Democrats. (Crist is running as an Independent, but he was elected governor as a Republican. He has not said which party he will caucus with if he’s elected.)

 “Any time you have moderates from either side of the aisle working together and have enough moderates, we’re going to be able to deal effectively with extreme positions that are often included in legislation,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who helped bring Snowe and Collins along to support a $787 billion economic stimulus bill last year.

 It was one of the few major bills to pass this Congress with bipartisan support.

 Democrats had so few potential negotiating partners, they turned to the same GOP lawmaker, Graham, to attempt to forge a compromise on climate and energy reform and immigration reform. It was telling that only one Republican was willing to negotiate on two of Obama’s leading initiatives.

“The goal of anybody who wants to solve a problem is to create some momentum for other people to join in,” said Graham, who added that centrists such as Castle and Kirk would be more likely to join bipartisan talks.

 Castle and Kirk, for example, were helpful allies to Democrats after they captured control of the House in 2006.

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They both voted for several proposals of the legislative agenda Democrats campaigned on to oust Republicans from power. In January of 2007, they voted to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour; and to repeal tax cuts to oil companies and mandate they pay fees for removing oil from the Gulf of Mexico.

 They also voted in 2007 for a measure opposing President George W. Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq, and sponsored a $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

 Senate Republicans, weary of life in the minority, are too excited about Castle, Kirk and other centrists winning Democratic seats to quibble about their records. Republicans would need to win 10 seats in order to capture the majority.

 A review of Castle’s campaign fundraising records shows he has received thousands of dollars in contributions from conservatives such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

 Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, said Castle, Kirk, Fiorina and Crist could embolden centrists such as Snowe and Collins by joining the chamber.

 “It creates the possibility of coalition-building, and that’s very difficult right now,” said West. “There is safety in numbers if you have a larger group [of centrists]. It creates some political cover for people to talk to Democrats.”

 West said there are so few centrists in the Senate that it makes it easier for Republican leaders to keep their members in line.

 “Historically, there were more moderates in the Senate and people were more willing to cross party lines,” he said. “There was more bipartisan sponsorship of legislation.”

 Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, agrees with that analysis.

 “The more moderates there are here in both parties, the more of a bridge there is, the more of a potential to build a bridge between both parties,” said Lieberman, who added that it has been difficult for Snowe and Collins to do that because there are so few Republican centrists.

 “It puts them under a lot of pressure,” he said.

 McConnell has had a standing policy this Congress that any lawmaker who plans to strike a deal with Democrats must first explain his or her reasons to the entire GOP conference. This subtle form of peer pressure has proven remarkably effective in keeping Senate Republicans unified against Obama’s agenda.

 A senior Republican aide said it would be “interesting” to be present at the first GOP conference meetings where Castle, Kirk, Paul and Lee discuss their visions for the chamber.