Why Moderate Republicans Keep Losing the Battle For Control of Their Party

UPDATED 9/19: Bob Dole is doing exactly the same thing described below— in the past few years he has lamented how far to the right the Republican Party has moved, and yet, he's actively campaigning for Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas in an effort to ensure that Republicans win control of the Senate, even though Roberts is running against an independent who said he wanted to be like Dole. 

Moderate Republicans have lost the war for the ideological soul of their party (at least for now). Geoffrey Kabaservice argues that the key lost battles occurred during the 1960s. 

My own work concedes this point, but argues that a durable core of moderates survived into the 1990s. A combination of the rise of ideological interest groups on the right (Club for Growth, Senate Conservative Fund, etc) and ideological media (talk radio & Fox News), and changes within Congress convinced many of these members to retire, or defeated them. 

Yet, another factor that is not discussed much—the temperament of moderates and their willingness to acquiesce as the party moves progressively further to the right—ensures that moderates will have a smaller and smaller voice in the Republican coalition as time progresses.

Sure, the moderates have tried to fight back to some degree, especially in the last few years. Organizations like Main Street Advocacy are trying to support establishment, pragmatic Republicans (though many of these Republicans are far more conservative than the moderates of the 60s, 70s, and 80s) in the primary wars. 

But, by their very nature, moderates seek solutions, compromise, and accommodation. They also believe in the Republican Party and their party loyalty has meant supporting bills that are more conservative than they'd like— at least procedurally, and sometimes on the merits as well. 

Electorally, it has meant retiring moderates endorsing successors who are more conservative than they are. It has also meant endorsing conservative Republicans over far more moderate Democrats, or at least abstaining from becoming involved (as opposed to endorsing a Democrat). 

The latest example of this tendency—and the motivation for this blog— came on Monday when former President George HW Bush endorsed conservative businessman David Perdue over Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former moderate Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) and the former CEO of Bush's Point of Light Foundation, in the Georgia Senate race. On its face, this decision is unremarkable. 

A former Republican President endorsing a Republican candidate is yawn worthy. But this type of endorsement is precisely the problem for anyone who would like to see the Republican Party come back towards the middle. 

Conservatives approach the battle for the ideological soul of the Republican Party as a war. They bring out the heavy artillery, and are willing to lose a battle to win the war (witness the conservative efforts to help activist Christine O'Donnell defeat Congressman Mike Castle in the 2010 Delaware Republican primary, which likely cost Republicans a US Senate seat). 

Moderates, by contrast, almost always do exactly as Bush did. Perdue is a wealthy businessman, who wasn't the choice of the conservative base in a five way primary, and by all accounts seems like a conventional Republican position wise. He's not a firebrand, but he also isn't emphasizing deal making or compromise, even now that he has won his primary and runoff. He seems unlikely to be a Ted Cruz-like figure, but he also seems unlikely to be a Susan Collins-like bridge builder. 

By contrast, there appears to be real evidence that Nunn might be a true moderate who works to achieve bipartisan compromise. Her father received a 45 score from the American Conservative Union in his last two years in office. Additionally, as a Democrat in a conservative state, Nunn would have the pull of the electorate to keep her near the center. Finally, at least rhetorically, she stresses compromise and working together. 

An endorsement from Bush might have cut through the clutter of campaign season, and it might have sent a bold message— until the Republican Party comes back towards the center, the old guard of pragmatists would be open to supporting the right Democrats.

The Georgia race isn't the perfect example. Perdue isn't Todd Akin, or Glenn Grothman, the firebrand conservative who just won a House primary in Wisconsin in a district that moderate/liberal Republicans have held since 1966. Nonetheless, I use it as an example because of Bush's high profile. 

Here is a Democrat who Bush knows well (and who his son indicates he respects a great deal), who is likely to be a moderate running against a conservative who will be beholden to the very conservative Republican primary electorate that thwarts bipartisan dealmaking. Yet, he refuses to take the plunge, instead instinctively prioritizing party unity. 

The Grothman race is an even better case study. Tom Petri, the retiring congressman, offered very tepid praise for Grothman, and declined a chance to endorse him. Yet, he also didn't offer an endorsement for Grothman's opponent. Will Petri actively work against Grothman, who is ideologically far to his right, and who announced his intention to run before Petri decided to retire (because of Petri's insufficient conservatism)? 

Until moderate Republicans come out and support moderate Democrats in general elections, there is no incentive for conservatives to stop running primary challengers against solution oriented conservatives and moderates.

There is no doubt that many conservative groups and media personalities would continue their crusade for a pure Republican Party even if it meant losing general elections. But many voters might pause, preferring the lesser of two evils. 

Additionally, it would force the Republican leadership to recalibrate its agenda. Right now, the support of moderates is often taken for granted, because they tend to fall in line far more often than the cantankerous extreme conservatives who have, time and time again, opposed leadership's agenda. Thus, leadership can push a more conservative agenda and obstructionism without worrying about fracturing their coalition, but cannot cut deals on major issues without a significant backlash. 

Right now, there is no political consequence for running afoul of moderates, and there are many potentially significant consequences for ignoring the whims of arch-conservatives. That's a recipe for moving the party continually to the right. Without a counterweight, activist, extreme conservatives have no reason to conciliate, and will continue to dominate the party. 

Put differently, until moderates fight back using the same tactics as conservatives, they'll continue to lose the war for control of the Republican Party.