The transformation of the Republican Party in the mid to late 20th century from one dominated by a moderate-liberal Eastern establishment to the current conservative model is a historic fact. Even the mere hint of moderation on the part of a Republican candidate is enough to send the party’s grass roots into conniption fits. The most damning accusation that can be lodged against anyone in the GOP these days is that of being a RINO — Republican in name only — a term that is synonymous with betrayal of principle and mushy statism. But two important Senate contests this year raises an interesting question that Republicans ought to seriously consider: is it ever okay for the party to nominate a moderate?
In Connecticut, two candidates are contesting the Republican nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman: Wrestling mogul Linda McMahon and former congressman Chris Shays. For conservatives in this very blue state, the choice may be an easy one since McMahon is a Tea Party sympathizer. By contrast, Shays is more or less what most people think of when they hear the term RINO. In his 21 years representing Fairfield County in Congress Shays voted more often with liberals than conservatives. Yet a Quinnipiac University poll showing the pair in matchups against the two prospective Democratic challengers in the race ought to give even the most ardent RINO-haters pause. The survey shows Shays in a virtual dead heat against either Democrat while McMahon is badly beaten in both matchups. Should that influence GOP voters?
By the time he lost his seat in 2008, Shays had become a poster child for a nearly extinct species: moderate to liberal Republicans. On abortion, gun control, campaign finance reform and other conservative litmus test issues, Shays was on the liberal side of the spectrum. He also angered many by ditching his party on the war in Iraq in 2006 by calling for a troop withdrawal, a tilt to the left that helped hold onto his seat for one more term. Ironically, that was the same year Lieberman refused to bend to pressure from left to oppose the war and thereby lost his party’s nomination before winning re-election as an independent.
McMahon has no such liabilities as far as conservatives are concerned. But she does have two big problems. One is that her past as the head of a business as disreputable as professional wrestling makes her a tough sell in the state that calls itself the “land of steady habits.” The other is that her raw conservative populism is politically radioactive in liberal Connecticut. It should be remembered that during her initial foray into electoral politics in 2010 she faced off against an ethically damaged Democrat (Richard Blumenthal had been caught on tape lying about his service in Vietnam) in a year in which the Republicans made historic gains but was still beaten in a landslide. There’s no reason to think she will do any better this time around. Shays has, at worst, an even chance at stealing a seat the Democrats are counting on in a desperate battle to hold onto their Senate majority.
Across the state line to the east, Republicans won a huge victory a year ago when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. Brown comes across as a populist, but once you get beyond his opposition to ObamaCare and his truck, he is pretty much a standard issue New England moderate. Brown might be what passes for a conservative in Cambridge but does anyone think the GOP would have even a ghost of a chance of holding that seat in November against Elizabeth Warren with someone conservatives might like better? Its not likely Shays’ votes would be all that different from Brown’s or those of the retiring Olympia Snowe in Maine.
Having worked hard to purge the RINOs some conservatives are so offended by moderates that they are prepared to sacrifice electability for purity. They will argue, as some have in this year’s presidential primaries, that Republicans lose when they nominate moderates. But whatever one might think of the veracity of that claim on a national level, it makes no sense when you are discussing states that simply will never elect a conservative like Connecticut.
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint famously said in 2010 that he’d “rather have 30 Marco Rubios [in the Senate with him in the Republican caucus] than 60 Arlen Specters.” But while his distaste for Specter was understandable, does that mean he and others on the right would really prefer to have a standard-issue liberal Democrat representing Connecticut rather than a squishy Republican who might make Mitch McConnell the Majority Leader rather than Harry Reid? Does no one in the GOP remember the seats they tossed away by nominating unsuitable right-wing candidates in Nevada and Delaware in 2010 rather than moderates or the advantage that gave Barack Obama in a score of legislative fights in 2011 and 2012?
Democrats won back the Congress in 2006 largely through a policy of nominating conservatives to run on their line in red states (think Heath Shuler in North Carolina). While Shays has an uphill battle to overcome McMahon’s enormous financial advantage in a GOP primary, that’s a lesson Connecticut Republicans might do well to remember.