The burden ahead for moderate Republicans

Perceptions that the GOP is too "moderate" will complicate reformers' efforts to loosen the Tea Party's grip.

The GOP might be tilting deep red, but many Republicans see the party as "moderate." Image credit: Getty

 The internecine struggle within the GOP has so far been a win-one-lose-one tug-of-war between the “establishment” and the Tea Party: While the Tea Party claimed victory in the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the establishment struck back with its defense of Sen. Thad Cochran, defeating Tea-Party challenger Chris McDaniel.

But in an ominous sign for the establishment wing, recent data from Third Way show the center of gravity in the Republican Party might be inexorably shifting rightward.

Third Way’s “State of the Center” survey finds that GOP conservatives think the Republican Party is far more “moderate” than they are themselves. While conservatives rate the party as only slightly to the right of center (an average of 5.8 on a scale where 9 is “very conservative”), they rate themselves much closer to the extreme (an average of 7.4).

In contrast:

[L]iberal voters don’t see much difference between themselves and Democrats in Congress on an ideological scale – putting Congressional Democrats just right of themselves, as slightly more moderate.

In fact, says Third Way, the gap between conservatives’ perceptions of the Republican Party and themselves is four times higher than the gap between liberals’ perceptions of Democrats. Moreover, 7 in 10 Republicans identify themselves as “conservatives,” making them a super-majority bloc within the party.

All this translates into intense pressure on the Republican Party to keep these conservatives under the tent. And the net result, said Democratic National Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23), is that the Republican Party’s priorities are increasingly skewed toward placating the extremes. “The contrast between the two parties and the direction that American voters have to choose from has never been more stark,” she said at a breakfast sponsored by Third Way.

As an example, Wasserman Schultz pointed to the lawsuit filed by Republicans against President Barack Obama on the same day Democrats held a press conference proposing a middle class economic agenda.

Contrasts such as these, said Wasserman Schultz, will help Democrats defy some predictions that the GOP is poised to take over the Senate and that Democratic pickups in the House are unlikely. “Models don’t elect candidates,” said Wasserman Schultz. “Voters do.”

If Wasserman Schultz is right, the road ahead is tough for would-be Republican reformers who are fighting to wrest control from the Tea Party’s grip. Moderate Republicans and conservative reformers must not only persuade their party of the political and substantive wisdom of a shift to the center, they may face the added burden of winning back disaffected moderates and Independents who vote Democratic this fall.

Paradoxically, the best outcome for these reformers might be a series of stinging defeats this November. Heavy Republican losses may be the only way to get the political impetus reformers need to support a revolt against the Tea Party extremes.