Charlie Dent, the New GOP Voice of Moderation

Posted October 2, 2013 at 6:12pm

In a matter of months, a once-discreet Rep. Charlie Dent has emerged as the new spokesman for the House GOP’s moderate wing.

Along with Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., the Pennsylvania Republican is urging his colleagues to pass a clean funding bill to end the first government shutdown in 17 years. At a time when many House Republicans gird their right loins, Dent has become more comfortable with this center flank.

If he survives this week and this cycle — a good bet — the square-jawed Republican will have positioned himself as a top bipartisan negotiator in his chamber.

“Maybe I was a little less vocal about it,” Dent said in a Wednesday afternoon phone interview. “I’m a center-right candidate in a center-right district in a center-right country.”

It’s difficult to believe Dent hails from the same district that elected a top conservative in Congress, now-Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, before him.

To be sure, Dent has been a quieter member of his party’s moderate wing since he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2004. (The former state lawmaker was elected co-chairman of the Tuesday Group in his second term.) But Dent’s moderate voice has reached a higher pitch in the past couple of months on social issues — and in the past handful of days on economic ones.

His path is emblematic of the political evolution of his own career, his district and his caucus.

Dent started as a top House target for Democrats. In 2004, he sought the Allentown-based seat after Toomey made it clear he would challenge Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, in the primary. Dent won his first term by double digits, even as his district split between the two presidential tickets.

Dent proved just as elusive in subsequent cycles. The party failed to recruit strong challengers in 2006 and 2008, when President Barack Obama carried the district by 13 points. Finally, when Democrats got their most desirable recruit in 2010, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, Dent defeated him by a whopping 25 points.

Last cycle, Republicans redrew congressional boundaries to make the district even more favorable for Dent. He won by double digits again, even as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the area with only 51 percent.

Over this same period of time, many moderate members of the House GOP lost re-election — either to more conservative Republicans or to Democratic challengers. But Dent has emerged more politically durable than ever.

Democrats have yet to find anyone to challenge him in 2014, and the congressman doesn’t anticipate a primary challenge — yet.

“Who knows?” he said. “You just have to deal. I don’t govern out of fear.”

Dent’s redrawn 15th District lies in the sweet spot of Pennsylvania (it now also includes Hershey), at the crossroads between the pricey media markets in Philadelphia and New York. This is not Billy Joel’s Allentown: The Lehigh Valley is the fastest growing region in Pennsylvania, providing a residential tax shelter for commuters to New Jersey and Manhattan.

Dent’s district has also proved to be a sweet spot for negotiating within his caucus. The 15th District borders or comes close to the districts of GOP Reps. Lou Barletta, Michael G. Fitzpatrick, Patrick Meehan and Jim Gerlach, and it’s just across the state line from New Jersey Reps. Jon Runyan and Leonard Lance. These Republicans represent a chunk of more moderate members in the caucus who have said they are open to supporting a clean continuing resolution to re-open the government.

“At some point, cooler heads will prevail and we will end up funding the governing,” Dent said. “There must be a bipartisan coalition to enact must-pass legislation. The sooner we all come to that realization, the better.”

Dent, 53, has been a vocal moderate on social issues for a few years. He was one of 15 House Republicans who voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010. This year, he co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which includes protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers.

In June, he disparaged his GOP colleagues for trying to pass a stringent anti-abortion bill, telling CQ Roll Call that “the stupidity is simply staggering.”

The former university fundraiser voted with Republicans 83 percent of the time last year, according to CQ Voting Studies, about average for his annual party unity score throughout his career.

Democrats accuse Dent of mixing moderate rhetoric with conservative votes. One local Democrat from his district pointed to Dent’s votes with the GOP to delay Obamacare implementation last week as proof.

“If you look at his votes, they’re not all that different from the tea party,” the Allentown Democrat said, adding, “He seems to get away with it pretty well.”