Moderate Republicans Struggle to Hold the Center as Fringe Grows

  • House GOP members who voted for infrastructure face criticism
  • Closed primaries lead to fewer lawmakers working across aisle

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Internal blowback and external death threats over supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill has the most moderate House Republicans sounding the alarm over their future in the conference, as well as the ability to ever work across the aisle.

Simmering tensions between the party’s wings were on display throughout the past year, including over an impeachment vote against former President Donald Trump, a vote to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from her committees, and a vote to launch a Jan. 6 commission. It hit a boiling point this month when 13 Republicans helped Democrats clear the major investment in the country’s roads and bridges.

There’s pressure in both parties to cater to the extremes, moderate Republicans say. For Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the Republican co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, the increasing demand for ideological purity could be “the destruction of our nation,” and the situation couldn’t be more dire.

“The biggest threat to that democracy is when Americans turn on Americans,” Fitzpatrick said. “And if we are exhibiting that same behavior here inside the people’s house, that’s very problematic.”

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) arrives for the Nov. 15 signing of the infrastructure package. He’s one of the 13 House Republicans who voted for the bill.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who previously co-chaired the caucus, said that during his decade in Congress it’s become harder to be willing to work with the Democrats in part because of pressure from lawmakers in his party.

“You get chastised more,” he said. “The members themselves develop a dislike for what you’re doing, and I’ve seen that on both sides of the aisle.”

In past elections, both parties have added lawmakers closer to the ideological edges. Meanwhile, two Republicans who voted to impeach Trump—Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.)—have announced they won’t run for re-election next year, as have moderate Democrats including Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

There is “no question it’s getting harder” to work across the aisle, said Ryan Clancy, the chief strategist at No Labels, a bipartisan political organization.

“If you’re anybody, on either side, who has deviated from the one true path as prescribed by the base, then you got to go,” he said.

Safe Districts

Fitzpatrick said he’s concerned about what working across the aisle will look like, in part because of institutional policies and practices that dissuade members and candidates from even occasionally bucking their party.

Redistricting could add to the problem, as the parties seek to create safe districts where bipartisanship may be seen as less of a virtue.

Relatedly, a big concern for Fitzpatrick is closed primaries. They’re only open to registered members of the party, and those who turn out tend to skew more conservative than the overall party base in the district. It’s “a big problem,” he said, because “then you’re just fighting the fringe.”

“All the money and structure in politics is on the fringes,” he said. “That’s where the fundraising arms are, that’s where the activists are, that’s where the protesters are.”

Rewarding Extremes

Primaries are also a concern for Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), another member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Meijer said that in primaries, talking about working with Democrats to get legislation passed “goes over about as well as someone saying ‘eat your vegetables.’”

“Part of you might understand and support it, but it’s not animating, it’s not exciting,” he said. “We have a media and a cultural environment that rewards extremes.”

Reed said misinformation has played a large part in stoking fears and stereotypes—all Democrats are “communists,” all Republicans are “redneck racists.” That, Reed said, has led to voters increasing their donations to lawmakers who play to those fears.

Reed didn’t name any lawmakers, but Greene made headlines earlier this year for raising more than $3 million in her first quarter in Congress.

“Silent Majority”

Fitzpatrick said he thinks the majority of voters are craving bipartisanship, they’re simply not as vocal about it.

There are some tangible positive signs for moderate lawmakers in the party, who may even see their ranks grow if Republicans win the chamber next year. The Republican Main Street Partnership, whose members include 12 of the 13 Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill, aren’t having a difficult time finding candidates to run in 2022, said the group’s president Sarah Chamberlain.

Main Street has endorsed 15 candidates, five more than it had at this time in the previous election cycle, Chamberlain said. As many as 20 candidates could have the group’s backing by the end of the year.

“I’ve had more candidates than I’ve ever had,” she said.

Chamberlain said the current angst was “a short-term blip” and their members were focusing on policy and avoiding the political infighting. And she’s found the new candidates Main Street is backing aren’t deterred by the partisanship on Capitol Hill.

Reed, who won’t run for his seat in 2022 after a lobbyist accused him of inappropriate behavior, said he thinks “a silent majority” of voters in the center right and left are “waking up.”

“America has a history of doing the right thing,” he said. “It just may take us a little while to get there.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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