GOP moderates shrinking in numbers - and impact

Base shifts right, and ideological zealotry follows

Trey Grayson hugged daughters Alex and Kate after his concession speech in May 2010. Rand Paul, backed by the Tea Party movement, defeated him in the Republican primary for Senate. Trey Grayson hugged daughters Alex and Kate after his concession speech in May 2010. Rand Paul, backed by the Tea Party movement, defeated him in the Republican primary for Senate. (David Kohl/Associated Press)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON - As Tom Russell watches the nation’s debt ceiling drama drag on day after day, the 44-year-old Republican from Keene, N.H., sees a dysfunctional family careening toward economic disaster, with leaders from his own party mostly to blame.

A self-described moderate, Russell said he feels abandoned by the Republican Party as its base shifts to the right and politicians respond with ideological zealotry, refusing to compromise even as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit looms and the country nears the brink of defaulting on its debts for the first time in history.

The former stockbroker who now sells solar panels for a living says he believes that the seemingly defunct bipartisan plan by the Gang of Six to reduce the nation’s deficit by combining program cuts with tax increases made sense. But many Republican lawmakers stood firm against taxes, and talks imploded.

“The Republicans have become the party of no,’’ Russell said. “Now that we’re at a tremendous crossroad when things are going down the tubes, it’s kind of an embarrassment to say that we’re even in the same party.’’

The Republican Party has, in fact, moved away from its moderate wing in recent years, according to national polls, resulting in a growing chasm between its political leaders and a significant group of disenchanted voters. Republican lawmakers have increasingly aligned themselves with their expanding conservative base - the party’s loudest, most active voices that helped propel GOP candidates backed by the Tea Party movement into the House in the 2010 primaries and general election.

Self-described moderates, who made up nearly a third of the Republican Party a decade ago, now represent less than a quarter of Republicans, according to new Gallup findings to be released Friday. Meanwhile, the percentage of Republicans who call themselves conservative has risen to a high of 72 percent, up from 62 percent in 2002.

“The base of the party right now is the Tea Party, frankly,’’ said Trey Grayson, former secretary of state of Kentucky who now directs the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School after losing in the 2010 US Senate GOP primary against Tea Party candidate Rand Paul. “Those are the folks who are the most active, the loudest, who go to town hall meetings, call members of Congress, and show up at political barbecues, and they’re pulling the party to the right.’’

The shift, and resulting polarization between right-leaning Republicans and increasingly liberal Democrats, bodes ill for constructive discourse and effective governance, say political scientists. The far right has so vilified Obama that for Republican congressmen to even negotiate with the White House is seen as treason by many Republicans, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

The split in the GOP is especially pronounced now in party members’ disagreement on reducing the deficit. While polls show that many Republican voters support a combination of program cuts and tax increases, that is not true when it comes to the most conservative segment of the party.

Many disaffected moderates have shifted their party registration to independent and dropped out of the political scene, said Connie Morella, a moderate Republican and former Maryland congresswoman who led a study group at the Harvard Institute of Politics on the endangered moderate.

And current Republican leaders, many of whom have pledged not to raise taxes, are beholden to the increasingly right-wing electorate that swept them into office; more moderate members have been defeated in the primaries.

“Moderates were an endangered species, and now it’s just about an extinct species,’’ said Morella, a Somerville native. “Republican leaders feel they need to be loyal to their party because there could be repercussions if they are not. They are afraid it might be held against them in the next election, and that’s a really difficult kind of prison to be in.’’

The Republican Party’s swing to the right has been in the making for 30 years as social conservatives joined traditional fiscal conservatives during the Reagan era, political scientists say. The change has accelerated in recent years as fiscal conservatives, stunned by the deficit spending that sped up under President George W. Bush, aligned with the Tea Party in rigid opposition to further spending and taxation, leaving moderate Republicans in the dust and creating a “zealousness and single-mindedness that hadn’t been in the party before,’’ said Garrison Nelson, political science professor at the University of Vermont.

“Anybody who suggests taxes be raised by even a dollar will be forced to walk the plank,’’ Nelson said.

“They have turned economic policy into religion, and compromise is lost. They’re playing chicken with the economy right now,’’ he added.

Disenchanted moderates will be inclined to wash their hands of everybody, he said. And when that happens, moderates are likely to stop voting, leaving “the hard ideological core in the voting booth.’’

In New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first presidential primary, in which moderates are just as inclined to vote as conservative activists, moderate GOP voters expressed frustration about the current state of their party. Sarah Emberley, a 50-year-old Republican from Jaffrey, said her party leaders need to begin “listening and sharing in the sandbox’’ with the Democrats on solving the nation’s debt crisis.

“I’m exasperated with all of it,’’ said Emberley, who believes Social Security and Medicare should be spared from cuts. “Our leadership is stuck. The Republican agenda is stuck. And the moderate voice has gotten lost in the whole rhetoric.’’

Russell, the moderate from Keene, said he understands how Republican lawmakers must walk a tightrope and not be dismissive of the “extreme right wing,’’ but feels the leadership should become more aligned with moderates like himself who have largely remained silent.

“Otherwise we are going to fracture, and the whole party will become a joke,’’ he said. “I don’t go to rallies. I don’t make a big deal of my opinions. But I’m just disgusted right now with what’s going on in Washington. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d probably vote Democratic.’’

Grayson lamented the disenfranchisement many moderate voters feel. Ultimately, the Republican Party needs to put together a coalition that can govern, keep its base happy, and appeal to voters in the middle in order to get to a majority. Posturing, as in the case of the debt talks, does not get stuff done, he said.

“As a Republican I am concerned about how this plays out,’’ Grayson said. “I hope we win this fight and still remain a party that can accomplish things and govern. Sometimes that involves giving a little bit, and this is one of those moments. But, look, I ran on this message and I lost.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at