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GOP’s lost moderates

Today, moderate Republicans are an endangered species — far outnumbered by their conservative Southern-dominated brethren, powerless to influence the direction of their party and unappreciated by their party’s rank and file.

“I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs,” said South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint recently, voicing a craving for ideological purity that has infected almost every corner of the party.

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Desperate to arrest their slide into oblivion, so-called GOP moderates have started to push back. “There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party,” wrote Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe in The New York Times following Sen. Arlen Specter’s (Pa.) defection.

“I think the Republican Party has to take a hard look at itself and decide, ‘What kind of party are we?’ ” former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell said on “Face the Nation” Sunday. “I have always felt that the Republican Party should be more inclusive than it generally has been over the years.”

John Weaver, former adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and close confidant to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, warned that “[i]f it’s 2012 and our party is defined by [Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin and [Rush] Limbaugh and [former Vice President Dick] Cheney, then we’re headed for a blowout. That’s just the truth.”

But the moderates’ insurrection has turned out to be predictably ineffective. Snowe’s column served only to generate buzz that she might be following Specter out of the GOP. Party enforcer Cheney dismissed Powell on national television — “I didn’t know he was still a Republican” — and his tone made it clear he didn’t much care what Colin Powell thinks about anything. And Weaver’s new boss, the Utah governor, abandoned his 2012 flirtations to take a job with the Obama administration as ambassador to China.

The message is crystal-clear — the GOP is seeking retrenchment, not expansion, and the public is responding accordingly. A Pew poll last week found that between 2001 and 2009, Republicans lost ground in 25 of 26 demographic categories, including all age groups, both sexes, all ethnic and racial groups, married and single voters, from the least to most educated, and in all regions of the country — including the South. Even among weekly churchgoers, Republican approval merely held even.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, unlike his colleague DeMint, isn’t as eager to shrink his party. “We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party … that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing.”

Good luck with that. Not content with driving out Specter, conservatives are now working to sabotage the 2010 Senate efforts of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist because of Crist’s efforts on behalf of Obama’s recovery plan. And in Pennsylvania, Republican Senate hopes took a serious hit when former Gov. Tom Ridge passed on the race, probably concerned that his brand of conservatism — one that embraced Obama’s national security strategy following attacks by Cheney and other conservatives — wouldn’t pass the Limbaugh litmus test. Instead, Keystone State Republicans seem set on running a former Club for Growth president in their increasingly blue state.

Republican moderates may be speaking up a bit more, but it’s too little, too late. Living in a hostile party, their fate is either to die or switch. The choice is theirs.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).