To retake House, centrists say GOP needs candidates who can win swing districts

Many members considered vulnerable polled better than Trump

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., walks up the House steps for final votes of the week on March 8, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., walks up the House steps for final votes of the week on March 8, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 18, 2021 at 9:54am

Republican moderates have long been considered a dying breed in a party overtaken by the extremes of the tea party and Trumpism. 

But even as the GOP embraces the far right in the post-Trump era, some Republicans see an overlooked opportunity to expand their ranks — in the center. 

They point to moderate House Republicans in swing districts who were considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in 2020 but emerged with convincing victories that outpaced the top of the ticket. Those victories, along with wins by similarly minded Republicans in Democratic-held districts, helped the GOP narrow House Democrats’ majority to the point that a net gain of five seats in 2022 would flip control of the chamber.

“That’s the profile of the candidate who will help us win the majority back,” said former GOP Rep. John J. Faso, who represented a swing district in upstate New York from 2017 to 2019 and has since worked to increase support for center-right Republicans. 

“We’re pretty maxed out on people who can win in red districts. What we need is people who can win in swing districts,” Faso said. 

Faso is part of a group of former and current members and congressional staffers working to funnel donor support to center-right candidates in a handful of battleground districts through the Governing Majority Fund, a super PAC formed toward the end of the 2020 cycle to support members of the center-right Republican Governance Group, an informal caucus in the House formerly known as the Tuesday Group. 

The caucus sees itself as the governing wing of the GOP but its influence has waned in recent years. It does not have a formal roster, but many of its members supported by the Governing Majority Fund, including Reps. John Katko of New York, Rodney Davis of Illinois and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, were top Democratic targets last cycle.

But Katko ran nearly 9 points ahead of President Donald Trump in his district, while Herrera Beutler finished ahead of Trump by 6 points and Davis by 4, according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections.

Bipartisan opportunities seen

The Republican Governance Group is also looking to flex its muscle in the new Congress, as members willing to work on bipartisan legislation with the Biden administration see a new opportunity to increase their clout. 

“Everyone is looking for authentic leadership,” Herrera Beutler said. “I would wager nine times out of 10, voters, regardless how partisan they are, want to see you get something done. They don’t want you to come here and just be a Twitter star.”

Defending Main Street, another major outside group supporting Republicans in the middle, announced Thursday it would spend $25 million to support centrist candidates in swing districts, more than three times what it spent in the 2020 cycle.

Other groups have formed in recent weeks to support Republicans who have pushed back against the party’s embrace of Trump. 

They include the Country 1st PAC founded by Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger last month to back candidates willing to push back against Trump’s influence on the party. Another group, the Republican Accountability Project, connected to neoconservative Bill Kristol, pledged $50 million last month to Republicans who would work to “hold Trump accountable” for the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol and to support primary challengers to lawmakers it sees as the former president’s enablers. 

Up against headwinds

It’s too early to tell how much support such initiatives will have this cycle, and they are up against strong headwinds. Democrats, who brush off efforts to reinforce the center-right as “wishful thinking” from a fractured and rudderless GOP, are working to tie Republican moderates to the most extreme elements of their party. 

And Trump’s own new Save America leadership PAC announced this month that it had raised $31 million since forming in November. That money could be used to support his preferred candidates in primaries or to oppose the 10 Republicans who voted in favor of impeaching him, along with anyone else who attracts the former president’s ire. Some House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — like Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Tom Rice of South Carolina — are far from moderates. 

Republicans are quick to point out that there is a distinction between resistance to Trumpism and the traditional description of a GOP moderate as fiscally conservative, socially liberal and pragmatic about reaching across the aisle to advance their legislative priorities. 

“Over the past four years, we’ve confused what a conservative is versus what a moderate is, and we’ve basically reframed it all in Trump terms,” said Doug Heye, who served as deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and as communications director for the Republican National Committee.

“A moderate is defined now as anyone who is not in lock step with Trump; that has nothing to do with the issues,” Heye said.

Many moderates lost in ‘blue wave’

But it is clear that the Trump era posed a major threat to center-right members from suburban districts. Twenty-three of the 30 House Republicans who lost to Democrats in the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms were more moderate than the party’s mean, according to a Pew analysis.  

The Governing Majority Fund found a donor base eager to support those members.

It raised $1.5 million in a matter of months, much of it from construction unions and prolific Republican donors. The Laborers Union was the top donor, giving $500,000, while a fund controlled by the carpenters’ union gave $200,000 and the operating engineers $100,000. Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire, gave $200,000. Ronald Lauder, an heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics company fortune, gave $80,000. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely linked to House GOP leadership, gave almost $96,000.

Most of that was spent on mailings and ads attacking the moderates’ Democratic opponents. More than $439,000 was spent against Dana Balter, who opposed Katko in New York; $305,000 against Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who challenged Davis in Illinois; nearly $175,000 against Jon Hoadley, who faced Rep. Fred Upton in Michigan; and $139,000 against Carolyn Long, who challenged Herrera Beutler in Washington.

All of those Republican incumbents won reelection. 

“We were told up to election morning that they were going to decimate the Republican Governance Group, but we won by huge margins,” Davis said.

He beat Dirksen Londrigan last fall by 9 points, even as Trump’s winning margin in the district shrank to 3.5 points, from 5.5 points in 2016. Davis said those wins, along with new GOP recruits who flipped Democratic seats last year, have “emboldened” members of the group. 

“The bottom line is, we will be more effective” he said, “because we have more members now.”

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