Republican House Moderates Fight for Survival
Policy + Politics

Republican House Moderates Fight for Survival

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When Rep. Steve LaTourette, a key ally of House Speaker John Boehner, announced in July 2012 he was retiring from the House, the moderate Republican did little to hide his contempt for the increased polarization and toxic political atmosphere on Capitol Hill. 

The Ohio Republican, who had spent 18 years in the House, said he had come to believe the personal toll of holding office outweighed his ability to get things done in a divided and bitter Washington.

“I have reached the conclusion that the atmosphere today and the reality that exists in the House of Representatives no longer encourages the finding of common ground,” he told reporters.

Related: End of an Era: Moderate Republicans Call it Quits

Moderate and centrist Republicans like LaTourette – once a mainstay of Congress – are a rare species these days and getting rarer. While the GOP is gearing up for a possible sweep of the House and Senate in the November mid-term elections, some moderate Republicans are struggling to hang onto their seats -- or have decided to retire as well.

Veteran Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a Republican moderate and another Boehner ally, is being challenged aggressively in the Republican primary by Bryan Smith, a conservative attorney who enjoys solid backing from the Club for Growth. Freshman Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, another moderate, is under attack within his own party from Matt Lynch, a state legislator who touts his religious faith and conservative values.

Two other prominent moderate Republicans, Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia and Jon D. Runyan of New Jersey, are retiring from Congress, concluding it was time to move on. Wolf, who represents Northern Virginia, is a persistent voice in Congress for religious and human rights.  Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman, expressed frustration with his party after the 16-day government shutdown it provoked last October.

Democrats are hoping to capture Wolf’s and Runyan’s seats.

These and other lawmakers in the House and Senate are the casualties of the disintegration of centrist politics in Washington and the rightward shift of the GOP – a movement that has been accelerated in recent years by the well-financed efforts of conservative groups like Club for Growth and Senate Conservative Action.

Related: GOP Moderates Rally to Stop the Government Shutdown 

Since leaving Congress a year ago, LaTourette has worked to preserve what is left of the moderate wing as president of the centrist group Main Street Partnership, an unusual coalition of labor groups, corporations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others. 

In his new role as champion of like-minded lawmakers in the House and Senate who believe in the government’s ability to solve problems, LaTourette and his group are mounting modest offensives against far-right groups like Club For Growth – which LaTourette has described as “a cancer that has attached itself” to the Republican Party. 

“It is basically a money-making operation where you raise millions of dollars from donors; they pay themselves very handsomely,” LaTourette said in an interview Tuesday. “And it’s sort of a cottage industry on producing bile and going in and big-footing center-right Republicans. I think it is very destructive and it serves no useful purpose.” 

Boehner offered a similar critique last December when he slammed a range of conservative groups, including the Club For Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity,  for lining up to oppose a bipartisan budget deal before they had even seen the document. 

“They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner charged. “This is ridiculous.” 

Related: Tribalism Threatens GOP Senate Chances in 2014 

It goes without saying there is real bad blood between Club for Growth and Main Street Partnership as the two organizations engage in a high-stakes rope pull over the ideological makeup of the congressional GOP.

LaTourette decries Club for Growth’s conservative litmus tests on members’ votes as tantamount to “the Salem Witch Trials -- in other words ideological purity tests designed to drown out dissenting voices and preserve a narrow political base.

“It’s not just their impact on moderates,” he said. “It impacts the ability to do things like win the Senate, win the White House.”

The Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative organization with a strong agenda focused on cutting taxes and spending, portrays LaTourette as a disingenuous political operative who is out of step with his own party and who is cashing in with a lobbying firm he founded with his wife. 

“I think all you need to know is if you look at the fundraising for the Main Street Super PAC, it’s just all from labor unions,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth. “That’s because LaTourette carried labor’s water when he was in Congress. He was a Republican for big labor.” 

“We really don’t care what some corporate lobbyist thinks about us,” Keller added. “If Republican primary voters wanted candidates that supported big government, then they would vote for candidates that support big government. It’s not really about the groups, it’s about the policies that the candidates support.” 

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The New York Times reported last month about complaints from LaTourette’s political opponents that “under the guise of defending the Republican Party from extremists, he is profiting from his continued presence in the Washington spotlight.” The article raised questions about whether, in his dual roles of moderate advocate and a founder of a lobbying firm, McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies that he may have violated the federal statute that prohibits lawmakers from lobbying on Capitol Hill for a year after leaving office.

“There’s no cross-pollination, there’s no member of the Main Street Partnership that is a client of McDonald Hopkins,” LaTourette told The Fiscal Times. “We don’t solicit the corporate membership of Republican Main Street to become clients of the firm. They’re separate entities….I don’t benefit financially from anything I did at Main Street.”

Main Street Partnership has been around for more than a dozen years, the brainchild of former Rep. Amo Houghton, a thoughtful moderate Republican from upstate New York and one-time Chairman and CEO of Corning Glass Works. The group originally was created to bring moderates and centrists together to discuss the issues of the day and seek legislative solutions by working with liberals and conservatives on both sides of the aisle.  The partnership is modeled after a tax-exempt social welfare group and produces research on topics ranging from health care and tax reform to immigration law.

The political center in Congress has shrunk markedly over the past 30 years. Hovering around 30 percent of House and Senate members in the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of centrists in each chamber began slipping in the 1980s, and it has fallen to a small fraction today. 

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The Main Street Partnership lists just 52 of 232 current House Republicans as members, and three Senate members – Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona. The group’s bills and operations are funded by corporations, lobbyists and other donors who each pay dues of up to $25,000 a year, raising about $1.4 million.

Defending Main Street, a super-political action committee aligned with the Washington-based Republican Main Street Partnership, received more than 90 percent of its $845,000 in donations last year from labor groups, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Taken together with other funds raised by the non-profit arm of the organization and a separate political action committee, the organization has raised about $2.4 million in the latest cycle, according to Sarah Chamberlain, the organization’s chief operating officer.

While the group’s major focus is House campaigns, Main Street Partnership will also campaign on behalf of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in her bid for an open Senate seat in West Virginia. “She is the only one that can win that seat and flip it from a Democratic seat to a Republican seat,” said Chamberlain.

Whether LaTourette’s group will be any match for the likes of the Club for Growth, which is renowned for targeting establishment Republican candidates, remains to be seen.

The conservative Club for Growth and its various entities injected more than $55 million into the past four election cycles on behalf of candidates it endorsed, spending more money each year with a varied, but improving, success rate, according to The Washington Post. Since 2006, the Club for Growth has helped nearly 50 endorsed candidates get elected to Congress, driving Republicans in the House—and increasingly in the Senate — further to the right.

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