A Long Term Problem for Republicans

A Long Term Problem for Republicans

By Sean Trende - April 29, 2009

President Obama probably didn’t need any more good news to end his first 100 days. Yet he got it anyway, with a hefty assist from the Republican right. Senator Arlen Specter announced that he would join the ranks of the Democrats. This has several important ramifications in the short term. First, it means that Democrats will likely have 60 members once Al Franken is certified as the winner in Minnesota. The importance of this is somewhat overblown, since this doesn’t necessarily mean that Democrats will have 60 votes on all issues, but more on this later. Second, it contributes to the Democrats’ already-hefty momentum, and to the short-term marginalization of the beltway Republicans.

In the long term, the switch is a symptom of a deepening problem for the Republican party. First, it likely moves the center of the Senate further leftward. Some on the Republican party’s right will ignore this, and declare "good riddance" to Specter. After all, he cast the “wrong” vote on the stimulus bill, is pro-choice, and has cast a number of votes that fly in the face of modern conservative orthodoxy.

But as a member of the Republican party, subject to the threat of a primary challenge, conservatives had at least some leverage over Specter. Hence the flip on EFCA, hence the "no" vote on Obama's budget, hence the effort to shepherd numerous Bush appointees through the judiciary committee. Specter has cast a laundry list of votes that are anathema to Democrats. Perhaps some of those votes were cast as a matter of conscience, and Specter will not backtrack. But some likely were not.

With Specter’s party switch, any leverage from the right on these votes is gone. The pressure on Specter will now be from the opposite direction, as his new conference-mates work to secure his vote for Democratic legislation. And on one of the most important votes of each Congress – the vote to organize the Senate – he will certainly be voting for Harry Reid instead of Mitch McConnell. This pressure will almost certainly lead to a change on at least some of his votes.

Take the case of former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. As a Republican, Jeffords had a voting record on the left fringe of the Republican party, but to the right of every Democrat save Zell Miller. As an Independent he was on the far left of the Democratic Party. A man without a political home, he eventually retired. Vermonters then elected a Socialist to the seat.

Senator Jeffords was far from a perfect Republican by any measure, but many (apparently not all) Republicans would have preferred the voting record of “Republican Jeffords” to “Independent Jeffords” or “Bernie Sanders.” All recent party switchers – Michael Forbes, Rodney Alexander, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Richard Shelby, Billy Tauzin, Greg Laughlin, Jimmy Hayes, Nathan Deal, Mike Parker – showed some pretty substantial movement in their Poole-Rosenthal NOMINATE scores toward the fringe of their new party after they switched parties. Republicans may rejoice in the short term at losing an occasional thorn in their side. But the long term reality is that the prospects for the passage of Obama's agenda have just been enhanced.

Finally, the attacks from the party’s right flank against members who position themselves in the center of the party will continue to erode the Republican party’s chances of regaining a majority. Pretty much every analyst agrees that Specter’s switch was brought about because polling showed that he could not win his primary battle against Club For Growth-supported Pat Toomey (this in turn was a symptom of the massive defection of Pennsylvania moderates from the Republicans to the Democrats).

In effect, Specter's chances of being re-elected as a Republican were close to nil; Specter’s choice was the rational one for a politician interested in re-election. There is no guarantee that Specter will survive a Democratic primary (in which case the center of the Senate will shift even farther leftward when the eventual Democratic nominee trounces Toomey), but at least he has a chance among the Democrats.

Specter’s pending defeat in the Republican primary in a state that leans leftward cannot be viewed in isolation. It is part of a recent pattern of well-funded kamikaze runs against moderate Republicans, even in states or districts where no conservative could win a two-way race against a Democrat. It comes on the heels of a nearly-successful primary challenge to Senator Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island (Obama +28), a successful primary challenge to Rep. Joe Schwartz in MI-07 (Obama +5), and the derailment of moderate Republican Heather Wilson’s primary bid for the New Mexico Senate seat held by retiring Senator Pete Domenici (Obama +15).

If the Club for Growth’s track record on primary challenges had been one of defeating moderate members of the Republican caucus and successfully replacing them with conservative members, this might make sense from the right’s perspective. But the results have been the opposite. The Club weakened Lincoln Chafee with its primary challenge (he led Sheldon Whitehouse by double digits before the primary got under way); the end result was the replacement of a Senator who voted with the GOP about half of the time with the sixth most liberal Senator in the country. The successful charge against moderate Joe Schwartz has yielded a Democrat. The Club even managed to support a member who was too conservative to hold to the 27th most conservative district in the country (if that isn’t enough, in MD-01 they replaced moderate Wayne Gilchrist – lifetime ACU score 57 – with a candidate who could not carry a district John McCain was winning by 19 points)!

This strategy might make sense in a solidly right-of-center country. But the bottom line is that the action in American politics is generally between the 45-yard lines. Only 34% of the electorate considers itself conservative, which means that to form a majority, conservatives must convince about a third of the 44% of voters who consider themselves moderate to join an electoral coalition with them.

But ploys such as the primary challenge brought against Specter have the opposite effect. You can bet that Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME), are giving serious thought to where their political futures best lie right now. The vast swaths of independent voters in New England and elsewhere are wondering the same thing. Young centrist voters who are just now forming partisan identities are making similar calculations.

Right now, a substantial portion of the Republican party is demanding that all of their players occupy territory somewhere around their own 10-yard line. This may make sense in a state like Georgia. In states where a solidly conservative candidate simply cannot win because that state is positioned more around the opposing 40 (or in the case of Rhode Island, at the opposing side’s twenty yard line), it is insane. A party with such a viewpoint cannot form a lasting majority coalition, absent an implosion from the other side. So long as a substantial number of Republicans insist on positioning every member of their party between their own goal line and their own 40, they can't expect too much other than Democratic supermajorities in both houses, and the freight-train like advancement of an agenda they purport to loathe.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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