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Several factors including polarization, nationalization and partisan redistricting are increasing the loss of moderates in Congress, three former Democratic Congressmen said Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by the Third Way think tank.
Former Rep. Dan Maffei (D), now a distinguished senior fellow at Third Way, said most moderates start off with a big disadvantage by running in marginal districts and then have trouble advancing once they make it there.
“Even if you can get elected, it’s much harder to stay there as a moderate,” said Maffei, who rode in on the 2008 Democratic wave in upstate New York and got swept right back out last cycle. “Even if you can stay, you’re spending so much time ... caring about your own re-election that you can’t do the things you need to do to move up in leadership.”
Former Rep. Glenn Nye (D), who followed a similar path in and out of Congress in Virginia, said he is not “an optimist going forward about things getting easier for moderates to survive. At the end of the day, moderates tend to be the folks who come from the districts that are the swing districts, so we’re always the ones that are going to be vulnerable in elections.”
Former Rep. Artur Davis (D), who gave up a safe Alabama seat to run for governor last year, cited the nationalization of politics as a “big thing damaging moderates” and pointed to two defeated Democrats as examples.
Former Reps. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) “were the two most conservative Members of Congress. You name it, they voted against it,” Davis said. “It would’ve mattered in a less-nationalized political climate. But voters in southeast Alabama and voters in northern Mississippi decided, ‘You know, Gene, Bobby, we like you, but we don’t like your party.’”
Davis said party primaries are now dominated by the bases, and as minority parties get smaller in Democratic and Republican states, the party “becomes more insular, more out of touch. It’s harder for a centrist candidate to run.”
Primary opponents criticized Davis last year for voting against the health care bill. He lost the primary but said Tuesday that voting for the bill would have made his general election campaign a non-starter.
“People often ask me what would’ve happened in my race if I had voted for the health care bill. A very simple two-word answer: Blanche Lincoln,” Davis said of the former Arkansas Democratic Senator who barely won her primary last year and then lost in the general by 21 points.
“The reality is the minute Blanche Lincoln aligned herself with the national Democratic agenda, conversation was closed in Arkansas,” he said.