Congressional moderates are down in numbers after Tuesday’s elections, but they’re not quite out, despite the highly charged partisanship that has engulfed Capitol Hill in recent years.
While the moderate core of the House shrunk once again after being decimated during the tea party-fueled congressional elections of 2010, it largely held firm in the Senate, bolstered by independent Angus King’s win in Maine, victories by incumbent Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly winning Indiana’s open Senate seat.
The results mean moderates still will have a voice on Capitol Hill. Whether that voice continues to be drowned out by a cacophony of heated partisan rhetoric is uncertain.
Congress “may have moderated a bit, but the broader picture is still the disappearance of the political center,” said Sarah A. Binder, a politics scholar with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The Blue Dog Coalition, a 24-member group of moderate House Democrats, is dwindling, as only 13 survived Republican challengers Tuesday, with another — Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina — locked in a race too close to call. Six Blue Dogs lost Tuesday or in primaries, and four more are retiring at the end of this term.
While the Blue Dogs may gain a few freshmen when the 113th Congress convenes in January, the caucus won’t come close to matching the 54 members it had after the 2008 elections.
“The picture in the House is more of the same, which is Republicans pushing things to the right and Democrats to the left,” Ms. Binder said. “Most of the damage has already been done to the center.”
Still, the Blue Dog bleeding wasn’t as bad as two years ago, when the caucus lost about half its members. And several Blue Dogs won big Tuesday, as Reps. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, Sanford D. Bishop Jr. and David Scott of Georgia; and Loretta Sanchez, Mike Thompson and Adam B. Schiff, all of California, were all were re-elected by more than 20 percentage points.
Explaining why some moderates win while others lose is an inexact science, as such intangible factors as a candidates’ personality and likability sometimes play a greater role than party affiliation in House races than with statewide or national campaigns.
And if incumbent House moderates were able to survive the conservative tea party-wave elections two years ago and win big this year, they are likely immune — or at least well protected — against future Republican challenges, Ms. Binder said.
“Incumbents often are able to find a fit, a style that fits their constituency and they’re seen as one of them,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to entrance themselves.”
While the Senate’s moderate core will stay about the same size, the chamber as a whole may shift slightly to the left with Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin winning an open seat in Wisconsin, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren beating Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts.
Former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who is now president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an umbrella group for centrist Republicans, says there still is a place for moderates in the modern Washington political landscape. But it won’t be an easy time for them.
“It’s not the end of moderates. They’ll have their time, but in this atmosphere right now it’s been more polarized,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll find a rhythm, be able to work things out, but I think they’re going to have to go through a dance before they get there.”
And if the Republican base perceives their lawmakers conceding too much to President Obama during the new Congress, they will be “unforgiving” to them in the next elections, he said.