Liberal Republicans have a long, proud tradition in New York state; former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller lent his name to an entire generation of them.
And though moderates of both parties are in decline across the country, Rep. Chris Gibson maintains some of that brand at an awkward intersection. His upstate region favors President Obama, but a neighboring district also hosted the original tea-party revolt against a Republican moderate.
Gibson placed the furthest left of all House Republicans in National Journal’s 2012 ideological vote ratings. Whether that means he is the most liberal, the most moderate, or perhaps just the least conservative member of the GOP conference is in the eye of the beholder. The way Gibson sees it, he landed near the middle of both ratings in his first term because he balances a pro-growth and an anti-debt agenda, all while representing a district (New York’s 19th) that Obama carried twice.
“This is the kind of representation that gets things done, that creates jobs,” Gibson said. “We can bring people together in an era rife with partisanship and divide.”
Gibson’s moderate approach includes subscribing to various bipartisan, deficit-cutting budget plans, such as the Simpson-Bowles proposal. He also focuses on some nonpartisan local issues such as Lyme disease prevention, and he partners on farm legislation and other projects with such members as his moderate Democratic neighbor (both geographically and in the vote ratings), Rep. Bill Owens. There’s a personal element, too. “I came from a working-class family. My dad was in a union. I never forgot what it was like to be a private,” said Gibson, who spent 24 years in the Army and retired as a colonel.
In some cases, Gibson has simply cast a straightforward conservative vote as well as one leaning the other way: He voted for GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal in 2011 and against it in 2012.
And on several major policy flash points, Gibson shares some goals more traditionally associated with Democrats, but he is also witheringly critical of how President Obama has pursued the issue. For example, Gibson believes that the country needs more investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, but he said he’s against Obama’s stimulus package, which passed before he was elected, because “there was a better approach to demand and to supply.” Gibson also opposes two other signature policy proposals of Obama’s first two years, health care reform and a cap-and-trade program—something he mentioned multiple times, to make sure the point landed.
“I’m against the president’s health care law because I don’t agree that it’s going to achieve its goals,” Gibson said. “I believe in the goals. I want to drive down health care costs.” Gibson's preferred solutions are Republican favorites, including tort reform and buying insurance across state lines, as well as wider use of cost-saving pilot projects, including one he touts in his district.
On multiple issues, Gibson said he doesn’t support what he calls the “false choice” between the two sides in Washington—between sustainability later and low prices now, for example, in energy policy.
But that approach runs the risk of alienating both key constituencies for the Northeastern GOP, the base and the moderate-to-liberal median voters. Not every upstate Republican has navigated that divide smoothly in recent times. In 2009, activists revolted against the GOP special-election nominee to replace John McHugh, who became the secretary of the Army. Republican Dede Scozzafava ended up withdrawing from the race just before Election Day, but the split between her and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman allowed Bill Owens to win with less than majority support. The next year, the Conservative Party again deemed the GOP nominee sufficiently impure, and the party gave Hoffman its ballot line a second time. A second straight election with less than 50 percent support was still good enough to give Owens his first full term.
Gibson hasn’t had to face that situation, but state Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long doesn’t offer his full-throated support, either. The party endorsed Gibson in 2010 and 2012, but Long said nothing is forever. “I think the jury’s out now, OK?” Long said. “He’s got two years to hopefully do the right thing and vote in favor of the taxpayers of the state of New York.”
Not that Gibson’s voting record has endeared him to the other side. Democrats see Gibson’s rhetoric and rating as lip service masking radicalism, in the case of the Ryan vote, and more Republican obstruction of Obama’s agenda. The Democrat Gibson defeated in 2012, Julian Schreibman, worked to make the president a part of the House campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads linking Gibson to Mitt Romney. “We are trying to ensure that folks know that if they’re voting for the president, they should also be voting for a Congress that should work with him, not against him,” Schreibman told National Journal in November.
It didn’t work. Obama carried New York’s 19th District by about 6 percentage points, but Gibson also dispatched Schreibman by the same margin. And Democrats are already preparing to try again, pushing a similar theme even harder, in 2014. Fewer than 100 days after Gibson survived his first reelection campaign, wealthy 26-year-old investor Sean Eldridge—who is married to Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and campaigned for New York’s gay-marriage law—filed Federal Election Commission papers to run in the district.
Gibson’s Democratic opponent in 2014 will again lean on Obama’s majority support in the district, and that nominee might be able to count on more explicit support from his party leader in 2014. Obama was a distant presence in upstate New York in 2012, beyond his place on the ballot, but the president has pledged a major effort on behalf of House Democrats this cycle. As one of just a handful of Republican districts left representing Obama territory, Gibson's turf has already been marked as a 2014 battleground.
For now, Gibson shrugs off criticism from both sides. His record, not to mention his electoral victories, “speaks for itself,” Gibson said. “I’ve been at the center of the House because I believe in what I’m doing.” Despite the competing pressures of his district, so do his constituents—at least for two more years.
This article appears in the Feb. 21, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.