As Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) announced his retirement from the House on Monday, his candid acknowledgement that he is among a “dying breed” of GOP moderates in the chamber surely reverberated throughout the ranks of his party leaders and fellow centrists.
Ramstad, who also suggested that more vacancies are to come, is the third such middle-of-the-road Republican to announce plans to leave the House in 2008. Two of the three seats they leave behind are in jeopardy of being picked up by Democrats.
And Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), another centrist, is expected to announce his retirement in the coming days amid questions of unethical conduct, putting yet another marginal Republican district in play.
Coupled with the loss of more than a half-dozen swing-seat Members in the 2006 elections, the retirements of several moderates so far this cycle could be the start of an alarming trend for the House GOP.
While some GOP moderate leaders argue they are more powerful now and have more incentive than ever before to stay put, still others acknowledge that as more and more of their centrist colleagues leave, it may become more difficult to stay.
Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), one of the most prominent moderates in the House, said the loss of colleagues and friends “gives everybody pause” when considering their own futures and “makes it that much more difficult in terms of convincing other moderates to stay.”
He also noted the obvious political impact that swing-seat departures have on his party’s efforts to regain the House majority.
“As you lose moderate Republicans, you also lose seats,” Castle said, noting the uphill battle the party faces in trying to win back seats in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania that were lost in the previous cycle.
Castle said the current Republican leadership has been more supportive of moderates than previous leadership teams have and that, above all else, losing the personal friendships stings the most.
“It’s the loss of the people that really hurts,” he said.
Just last week, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said he will not run for re-election unless GOP leaders support his bid to become the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
For Shays, and privately for some other moderates as well, being continually passed up for chairmanships while facing tough re-election battles every two years has worn their patience thin.
“I’m 61 years old. I’ve been in Congress 20 years. If I have to fight to become chairman of a committee, given the job I’ve done, I need to move on,” Shays told The Hartford Courant.
Shays, one of the House’s most outspoken centrists and a perennial target for defeat by Democrats, was one of the few Northeastern Republicans to survive re-election in 2006 and faces another difficult race next year if he runs.
Among the GOP moderates defeated in 2006 were Reps. Rob Simmons (Conn.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Charles Bass (N.H.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.) and Gil Gutknecht (Minn.). Rep. Joe Schwarz (Mich.) was defeated in a primary.
Bass — now head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that promotes moderates — said it is not unusual to see a higher number of retirements in the cycle after control of Congress changes. He said moderates have many reasons to stay put, not the least of which is the fact that most of the American electorate is moderate as well.
Bass also said that while the GOP losses in New England were substantial in 2006, the Republican Main Street Partnership did pick up a few new Members, citing Reps. Jim Saxton (N.J.) and Jon Porter (Nev.) as recent additions to the group.
Both Saxton and Porter have served several terms, and Bass said their recent embrace of the centrist group could be a harbinger of what’s to come.
“It reflects an understanding of where our future may lie in our Conference,” he said.
Bass said new additions to the Tuesday Group, a coalition of House moderates, also are promising.
“There are some new faces in that group,” he said. “Some of these are people who you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see at a meeting.”
While Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, acknowledged that more retirements are likely to come, he also disputed the notion that moderates in the House were a shrinking group and that more moderates are now eyeing the exits.
“I think we’re feeling our oats,” he said, referring to recent bipartisan successes moderates have achieved.
He recalled that six years ago, the Tuesday Group began as a meeting of seven Members in Castle’s office and now they boast a membership of 39.
The Republican Main Street Partnership has 42 House Members and six Senators in its fold.
Still, there is little question that the ranks of House moderates look vastly different today than they did just two or three election cycles ago.
In the past two cycles GOP Reps. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), Jack Quinn (N.Y.), Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.) and Jim Greenwood (Pa.) have retired and Democrats currently hold all but one of those four seats.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), another moderate who is widely expected to launch a Senate bid later this year, noted that many of the more moderate lawmakers have been around for many years.
“I think some of them are just tired,” he said, also noting the constant fight for re-election many face.
Davis also said the next several months will be a “test of leadership” in whether they can convince some of the frustrated moderates to stick around and in doing so “make it worth their while.”
But Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who announced his retirement in late July, cautioned against reading too much into the GOP retirements so far, all of which he called “more personal than political.” For many longtime Members, he said, now is simply the time to go.
“These are individual decisions,” LaHood said. “I don’t see a pattern. I don’t see a big train running down the track.”
Retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) agreed with LaHood and also said it’s wrong to assume that the number of Republican moderates is diminishing and that the party can’t retain control of the swing seats being vacated.
“It doesn’t mean that Jim Ramstad can’t be replaced by a moderate Republican or that I can’t be replaced by a moderate Republican,” Pryce said. “As long as we line up the right candidates there’s no reason to reach that conclusion.”