Moderate Republicans No Longer Have a Home, and It Started With My Defeat

Over the last 30 years, the Republican Party has effectively eliminated its moderate and liberal voices — as well as the conservative voices that put country over party. The consequences of this takeover by an increasingly right-wing faction include the threats to democracy that have become increasingly prominent since the Jan. 6 riots.

When I lost my seat in Congress in 1990, I knew it was because I had co-sponsored a bill to ban assault weapons. The National Rifle Association and conservative Republicans in Vermont and elsewhere united to defeat me, calling the independent challenger, Bernie Sanders, the “lesser of two evils.” First, a right-wing candidate challenged me in the Republican primary, then many of his supporters aided the Sanders campaign in the general election.

Their plan: Elect Bernie Sanders for one term, then defeat him the next time around. The only problem: They couldn’t weaken him in a primary the same way and consistently failed to beat him in a general election. And the rest is history.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my defeat was an early step in the elimination of the moderate and liberal wing of the Republican Party. That process, aimed at members of Congress and state-level officials, began with the ascent of Newt Gingrich’s style of full-throated partisanship and has continued to this day. When moderates like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine retired, the party typically nominated more right-wing candidates to succeed them. Over the years, the party’s capture by hard-line activists — and now, as seen in New Hampshire’s primaries last week, election deniers — has resulted in ever more extreme nominees.

When Mr. Gingrich was elected Republican minority whip by a single vote in 1989, he and his supporters seemingly had one goal: not to govern, but to control, stifle and stymie Congress. They got less actual governing done as they frustrated Congress’s work, and in many ways their strategy worked.

The long-term consequences of their scheme led to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of today’s hard-right extremism. It has also weakened and undermined the Republican Party and multiparty government in states where more liberal general election voters reject hard-liners who become Republican nominees.

About three weeks after his election as whip, Mr. Gingrich called me into his office. He asked whether I was having dinner with Democrats. I was, I said: A colleague from Tennessee and I were hosting fellow freshman members for dinner regularly to share experiences. Mr. Gingrich demanded that I stop; he didn’t want Republicans consorting with Democrats.

I responded — not overly politely — that I was from Vermont and nobody told me what people I could eat with. But his demand was a harbinger of the decline of moderate and liberal Republicans. (Mr. Gingrich told The Times he did not recall the meeting, but noted that he was working to unify the Republican caucus at the time.)

What followed over the next few years was the deliberate quarantining of Republicans from Democrats: separate orientations for new members, a sharp curtailing of bipartisan activities and an increasing insistence that members toe the party line. The very idea of “voting your district” — which was alive and well when I was elected — became anathema within the Republican caucus. Simultaneously, the weaponization of the evangelical religious right and the organization of wealthy conservative donors was going on, largely behind the scenes, with money and organizing often used against moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.

Republican Party leaders fueled the shift to the right by promising results to their conservative base that they could not deliver: banning abortion, eliminating the deficit, slashing federal regulations, cracking down on L.G.B.T.Q. rights and greatly cutting taxes. Mr. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” — and the government shutdown it caused — set the stage for decades of unkept promises and primed primary voters to turn against the moderate and liberal elected officials who had once been a critical component of the Republican coalition, especially in the Northeast, when those officials could be readily blamed for not sufficiently supporting the party line.

As Republican voters and nominees adopted an increasingly extreme agenda, even a Republican Congress could not produce the results they had promised. While Republican officials delivered significant tax cuts for the very wealthy and, under George W. Bush, put numerous conservatives onto the federal bench, they failed to meaningfully relieve the tax burden for working- and middle-class people or to fully realize any of their culture-war goals, instead seeing same-sex marriage become the law of the land.

These failures drove a further rightward shift that resulted in the rise of the Tea Party. And when the Tea Partyers failed to stop President Barack Obama and his Affordable Care Act, we arrived at the 2016 presidential primaries and the rise of Donald Trump. The base of the party had become angry and alienated because the Gingrich-era promises had not been delivered.

During this period, some Republicans in the Northeast swam against the tide. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, my predecessor in the U.S. House, became an independent before his retirement. In her last term, Senator Snowe cast a critical vote in committee to put the Affordable Care Act before the full Senate. She believed health care reform merited consideration by the full Senate, not a quiet death in committee. She favored “governing” over “controlling.”

But even in New England, long a bastion of liberal and moderate Republicanism, moderates are now losing in Republican primaries. This year, a Trump-backed candidate won the nomination for governor of Massachusetts; candidates endorsed by Donald Trump or who deny the validity of the 2020 election won races in New Hampshire; and Vermont Republicans nominated a right-wing figure for Senate. Increasingly, moderate candidates without a deeply established electoral history are unable to win nomination for major offices.

There have been a few moderate and liberal Republican success stories, but they are anomalies, peculiar to the person or the situation. In Vermont, Jim Douglas, governor from 2003 to 2011, and the current governor, Phil Scott, built long electoral careers and personal brands that made them more resistant to hard-right primary challengers. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts developed a reputation as a competent administrator in the 1990s, long before he ran for office.

But the refusal by Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire to run for Senate this year speaks volumes about the culture and philosophy that the national Republican Party and its elected officials are enforcing in primary elections and in Congress. That doctrine has made a national political career less achievable and enticing, even for an extremely popular right-of-center governor like Mr. Sununu.

I believe that the current attempts to overthrow our democratic traditions will fail, but we must understand the successes produced by the right wing’s focus on control at all costs over governing.

Beyond Mr. Trump’s election, those successes include the numerous right-wing ideologues confirmed to federal judgeships, a major effort to restrict voting rights, the increasing presence of dark money in politics, the elimination of abortion rights and a lack of critical progress in combating the global climate crisis. Moderate figures in the Republican Party opposed many of these policies, from the abortion-rights supporters who were once part of the G.O.P. caucus to environmental advocates like John Anderson, the Illinois representative who ran for president as an independent in 1980.

Mr. Gingrich’s style of politics has informed much of what has come since. Under Mr. Trump and his acolytes, the emphasis on power and control has remained, at the expense not only of governing but also of decency.

In 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate Republican from Maine, attacked McCarthyism and its “four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” Republicans today seem to use Smith’s warning as an inspiration, projecting their own worst excesses upon their opponents. There is little room left in the G.O.P. for any disagreement — indeed, of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump, only one appears very likely to be in Congress next January.

It may be too late for the Republican Party to again welcome moderate and liberal voices into its ranks. But the focus of moderate and liberal Republicans — both elected officials and the voters who supported us — was historically on governing to solve America’s critical problems, not on accruing control for its own sake. If the Republican Party cannot be an instrument of democracy, independent-minded moderates will do what we’ve always done: Vote our conscience, and vote for someone else.

Peter Smith (@PeterPSmith), a Republican, represented Vermont in the House of Representatives from 1989 to 1991. He was the founding president of the Community College of Vermont and California State University, Monterey Bay, and was an assistant director general for education at UNESCO.

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