GOP Rep. Fred Upton's announcement last week that he was retiring from his western Michigan district after 35 years means that moderate Republicans are now almost entirely extinct from the U.S. Congress. Twenty to thirty years ago, Republicans like Upton were more plentiful. There were northeastern Republicans like Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays and Rob Simms from Connecticut, Amo Houghton and Sherwood Boehlert from New York, and midwesterners like Upton, Steve Gunderson in Wisconsin, and Mark Kirk from suburban Chicago. They often broke with their party on social issues like abortion, guns and the environment but were fiscally conservative and pro-business.
Like conservative Blue Dogs who were once plentiful in southern and rural America, these so-called Rockefeller-Republicans have disappeared, as Democrats now represent their once solidly red suburban districts.
With these members gone, goes the narrative, so has the civility and functionality of Congress. Without their counterweight, the leadership in both parties is now captive to the wishes and wants of the extremes like those in the GOP Freedom Caucus or the Democratic Progressive Caucus.
Upton, in an interview with Meet The Press' Chuck Todd last weekend, argued that unless Republicans pick up more than 15 seats this fall (for a total of at least 230 GOP-held seats), "it will be very hard to govern for Republicans… knowing that we've got the MTG [Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene] element that's really not a part of a governing majority."
With very little chance that Republicans don't take control of the House this fall, Upton's point about a 'governing majority' is the more critical one to focus on. In other words, it's not just how many seats Republicans pick up, but what kind of Republicans win those seats that matter.
Sarah Chamberlain, the president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership (of which Upton is a member), argues that while the era of the GOP moderate is over, it doesn't mean that the Freedom Caucus will be running the House GOP conference.
Back when Rep. Amo Houghton founded Main Street in the late 1990's, most of the members were pro-choice GOPers. Today, none of the members are pro-choice.
"There's no such thing as a moderate [Republican]," Chamberlain told me, "They aren't here anymore."
But, she argues that her members "aren't bomb-throwers. They want to get work done and move the country forward." A GOP moderate in this day and age doesn't mean someone who is not ideologically conservative; it means someone who wants to govern.
The 60-plus members of the Main Street conference don't fit into a nice, easily defined ideological box. All but two of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Pres. Trump came from their ranks. But, more than one-third of Main Street members voted against certifying Pennsylvania's electoral college votes. And, almost every one of the 13 GOP votes in support of the infrastructure bill came from Main Streeters.
Moreover, says Chamberlain, Main Street members "aren't going to stab McCarthy in the back." And while some conservatives are urging a GOP-controlled House to quickly bring up impeachment proceedings against President Biden, Chamberlain says she "can't imagine they [Main Street members] are going to vote to impeach Biden," especially at a time when "we have inflation out of control, we have a war raging. Crime is out of control. "
Upcoming primaries this spring and summer will help determine whether Republicans will have more "govern-ers" or more "bomb-throwers" in the next Congress.
For its part, Main Street is supporting two of its own members against primary challengers who argue that those members are not sufficiently pro-Trump. In West Virginia, they've endorsed Rep. David McKinley in his race against GOP Rep. Alex Mooney. Mooney, who's been endorsed by Trump, is attacking McKinley for supporting "Pelosi's January 6th anti-Trump witch hunt."
In Idaho, Main Street member Rep. Mike Simpson faces a challenge from Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, who calls Simpson an "anti-Trump career politician." Both Simpson and McKinley voted to certify the 2020 election. McKinley drew Trump's ire for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
But, the primary that will give us our first test of the Freedom Caucus versus the Main Street caucus is taking place in early May in Ohio's newly drawn 9th CD. This one-time Democratic stronghold in Toledo, held for years by Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, is now GOP-leaning, giving Republicans their first chance in almost 40 years to pick up this northwestern Ohio district. The Main Street endorsed candidate, state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, calls herself a "pro-Trump conservative" who is "fueling the conservative comeback." Her opponent, Craig Riedel, wraps himself in the Trump mantle as well, and pledges to join "Ohio's Jim Jordan in the Freedom Caucus."
Regardless of how many seats the GOP picks up this fall, they won't actually be doing much "governing" in 2023. After all, a Democrat will still be in the White House. But, that doesn't mean that the GOP leadership can't outline a governing agenda. But, the ability to keep the focus on that governing agenda and style is determined as much by the followers as the leaders. Former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan were unable to keep the party's extreme elements from dictating the pace and the focus of the conference. Will McCarthy be able to avoid their fate?
For her part, Chamberlain feels confident that the Main Street caucus will be adding a significant number of new members to its ranks. These members aren't the moderates that Main Street used to have 15 and 20 years ago. But, she argues, they will give leadership the support they need to keep the party focused on issues instead of in-fighting.
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