In the next month, we’re poised to see the latest death blow to centrism in both parties, with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana in the primary fight of his political life and a leading Blue Dog Democrat, Rep. Tim Holden, facing an unheralded but serious and well-funded challenger in next week’s Pennsylvania primary.
The retirement of moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was only a blip on the radar screen monitoring the shrinking of parties’ centrist factions, which allowed compromise and deal-making to flourish in the past. The rise of the tea party movement may have spotlighted the GOP’s drift rightward, but the centrist decline is a bipartisan phenomenon.
It’s plausible that after the 2012 election, thanks to partisan redistricting and the ideological reorienting of the parties, there will be only three white Southern Democrats left in the House -- Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Gene Green of Texas, and David Price of North Carolina. Of the 34 Democrats who voted against President Obama’s health care law, 24 either lost their seats in 2010 or plan to retire after this Congress, and another six are facing difficult reelection campaigns. There’s little chance the moderate Blue Dog Caucus can plausibly survive after the election given that attrition. Meanwhile, the base is thriving: Three of the marquee Democrats running for Senate this year—Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts—are all running to the populist left.
Meanwhile, Republicans appear content to allow primary voters to render their verdicts on influential veteran members they view as insufficiently conservative—Lugar; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.—even though they’ve never had trouble on their right flank in the past. But in the current climate, nuclear diplomacy is out, military hawkishness is in; past support of cap-and-trade is politically toxic; Solyndra is the buzzword of the moment; and ever having teamed up with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on legislation is an occupational hazard. The GOP battles are as much generational as ideological: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s daring endorsement and donation to freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger over longtime conservative Don Manzullo last month, in a member-versus-member primary, is indicative of the GOP primary electorate’s thinking.
The upcoming primaries in Indiana and Pennsylvania illustrate how the changes in the country’s electorate have put two respected congressional members at serious risk.
Lugar, whose voting record is traditionally conservative, is from a bygone era. His early praise of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s voting record on nuclear nonproliferation at the beginning of the 2008 presidential race foreshadowed his current political predicament. His pet issue is viewed by many as a relic of the Cold War, and any praise of Obama is toxic in a GOP primary. Meanwhile, he’s been serving in Washington so long that he no longer has a permanent address in his home state. These are glaring red flags that were being waved long before he mounted his reelection campaign.
The one missing ingredient was always the presence of a formidable primary challenger. Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock had a decent resume but a dry campaign style, and he initially struggled to raise money and win endorsements. But as in any race against a vulnerable incumbent, voters will render their decision primarily on their satisfaction with that incumbent. In a sign of where this race is headed, conservative groups have rallied behind Mourdock, who outraised the longtime senator last quarter and is in striking distance in the latest independent poll.
Holden’s predicament in Pennsylvania is a testament to the partisan workings behind the gerrymandering process, which has reduced the number of competitive districts where centrism would be an asset. The Blue Dog Democrat had regularly dispatched Republican opponents despite running in a district that regularly backed GOP presidential candidates. His opposition to abortion rights, gun control, and his party’s green-energy initiatives were political winners in his conservative-minded former district. But redrawn into a solidly Democratic one, Holden is now facing a serious challenge on his left from trial attorney Matt Cartwright—and finding that his old stances are now major vulnerabilities. The campaign has gotten nasty: Cartwright sent out mailers accusing Holden of being an acolyte of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a pawn of Big Oil.
Holden is the more-polished candidate. But his new district isn’t just different ideologically; about 80 percent of his constituents are brand new. So he doesn’t hold the incumbency advantage that most members start out with. Both campaigns are claiming they have the edge, and it’s likely to go down to the wire.
As my colleague Ron Brownstein wrote in last week’s National Journal cover story, congressional campaigns are becoming akin to parliamentary elections, with fewer voters picking presidential and Congressional candidates from different parties. Indeed, both parties have become homogeneous to the point where they’re almost entirely sorted out along ideological lines. The term “moderate” is an anachronism these days.
This trend has significant implications for the future trajectory of both parties. Democrats have more to lose politically if their party continues its leftward drift, because conservatives outnumber liberals by a 2-to-1 margin, according to surveys of the American electorate, most recently a Gallup poll released in January. In the modern era, Democrats have depended on a coalition of liberals and moderates to win elections, and the 2010 midterm losses nearly decimated the latter faction. But Republicans have lately shown little tolerance for ideological apostasy on issues like immigration, which would allow them to expand their appeal beyond the conservative base.
For all of the political changes over the past two decades, the ideological composition of the country has remained remarkably constant, even as the number of members representing the middle has shrunk. That means whichever party is best able to find room for the future Lugars and Holdens will be the one with a head start at holding the Congress in the years to come.
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.