The Revenge of the Moderates in U.S. Politics

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy for reelection makes her the latest to join a growing number of prominent politicians who have shed political affiliations in the hopes of winning public office.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is running as an independent for the Senate, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee is running as an independent for Rhode Island governor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg became an independent to run New York City, and, of course, Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the 2006 Democratic Senate primary — but won in the general as an independent.

The trend of moderate independent candidates who have forsworn party affiliations is not new to U.S. politics. Since the Civil War, when the modern Republican Party was established to compete against the Democratic Party, minor party or unaffiliated candidates have won election to the House or Senate a total of 697 times. Of these, 89 percent of elected minor party candidates had voting records ideologically between the two major parties.

Despite the recent polarization of U.S. politics, history tells us that moderates make winners.
Consider the Wisconsin Progressive Party. Its development has a familiar ring to today’s politics. Extremist elements flourished in the Republican Party during the Great Depression, growing out of our nation’s economic anxieties. GOP moderates responded by creating this Wisconsin group, focused on issues of reform and pragmatic governance.

It started when Wisconsin Gov. Philip La Follette ran for reelection in 1932 as the GOP nominee. He was heckled throughout his speeches by Republican ‘Stalwarts’ on his political right. They “had their Phil” and were angered by his policies of perceived higher taxes to support government spending. La Follette lost the Republican primary to Stalwart-backed Walter Kohler amid then-record turnout. Kohler lost to the Democrat in the general election.

La Follette is a famous political name. Gov. Philip La Follette and Sen. Robert La Follette Jr. were sons of the leading GOP politician, Sen. Robert La Follette Sr. Republican progressives had supported him for the party’s presidential nomination in 1912 and 1916. He eventually ran for president in 1924 — on his own Independent Progressive Party ticket. But while the father’s exploits are well-known, his sons’ reactions to Wisconsin’s political climate are more relevant to today’s politics.

Frustrated by the GOP extremists, the La Follette brothers created the Wisconsin Progressive Party, and they ran as party candidates when successfully elected governor and senator in 1934. Today’s independent candidates share a similar frustration with the ideological purists on their right and left. The extremists in the Democratic and Republican primary electorates are rejecting centrist candidates who might be better positioned to win general elections.

Consider the words of Crist when he declared his Independent candidacy. “If you want somebody on the right or you want somebody on the left,” Crist said, “you have the former speaker, Rubio, or the congressman, Meek. If you want somebody who has common sense, who puts the will of the people first, who wants to fight for the people first, now you’ve got Charlie Crist. You have a choice.”

With all the attention paid to the successes of Tea Party activists during the GOP primaries, it is easy to forget that these are not like general elections. Primary voters tend to be more ideologically extreme. So these Republican primary voters may end up denying the party several general election victories.

For example, many political observers agree that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a moderate, would have been a stronger candidate for Senate than the GOP primary victor, Christine O’Donnell, his tea party-backed opponent. General elections have traditionally been won in the center — where most voters still reside.

Minor party successes usually arise when the two major political parties become ideologically polarized. Moderates can usually find a seat under a big tent, but when party activists are unable to tolerate dissent, moderates are shut out and left to their own devices. So it isn’t surprising that strong candidates holding moderate positions realize they are electorally viable by abandoning their party and appealing to the center in general elections.

History tells us that conditions now are favorable for moderates like Chafee, Crist, Lieberman, and Murkowski. They step into a political vacuum at the center that the major parties created by moving to the political extremes. With room left for further polarization, this may be just the beginning of the rise of moderate independent candidates.

History also tells us the political party that first figures out how to recapture the middle — and bring these candidates and their supporters into the fold — is the one most likely to emerge as dominant.