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Senate membership shows how the parties have changed

The biggest change in ideological diversity is among the Republicans

It’s hard to imagine a Republican like the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — here in 2003 — being intimidated by Donald Trump, Rothenberg writes.
It’s hard to imagine a Republican like the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — here in 2003 — being intimidated by Donald Trump, Rothenberg writes. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Like the start of the 107th Congress, which began Jan. 3, 2001, and ended Jan. 3, 2003, today’s Senate (the 117th Congress) is split between the two parties. In 2001, Republican George W. Bush entered the White House with his party in “control” of the chamber, thanks to Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote. Now, Joe Biden is president, and his party “controls” the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker.

But while the party affiliations in 2001-2003 and 2021-2023 are similar, the two parties look dramatically different from a mere two decades ago. Sixteen senators of that 107th Congress — six Republicans and 10 Democrats — are still in office. Except for one obvious exception (Maine’s Susan Collins), the Republicans in that group are and have been very conservative, while the Democrats are and have been very liberal.

Besides Collins, the five other GOP senators still serving are Alabama’s Richard C. Shelby, Idaho’s Michael D. Crapo, Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe. On the Democratic side, there’s California’s Dianne Feinstein, Delaware’s Thomas R. Carper, New York’s Charles E. Schumer, Illinois’ Richard J. Durbin, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, Vermont’s Patrick J. Leahy, and both of Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Republicans often talk about how much more liberal the Democratic Party has become, and it certainly is true that in the 2001-2003 Senate, at least six Democratic senators could be classified as “conservative” or “moderate” — Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln, Georgia’s Zell Miller, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Indiana’s Evan Bayh, Louisiana’s John B. Breaux and South Carolina’s Ernest F. Hollings.

Today, only West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III falls into the moderate-to-conservative Democratic category, though a few others, such as Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, can cause heartburn for progressive Democrats on individual issues.

But even 20 years ago, liberals made up the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.

In addition to the 10 Democratic senators mentioned above, the list of Senate liberals in the 107th Congress included California’s Barbara Boxer, New York’s Hillary Clinton, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, Maryland’s Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, Michigan’s Carl Levin, Florida’s Bill Nelson, Hawaii’s Daniel K. Akaka, North Carolina’s John Edwards, Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone (who died in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002), West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, New Jersey’s Jon Corzine and Robert G. Torricelli, Minnesota’s Mark Dayton and Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold.

Other than Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who was elected in 2006 as an independent but caucuses with Democrats, Democratic senators are not noticeably more liberal or progressive than they were in 2001-2003.

On the other hand, the other side of the aisle changed much more profoundly between 2001 and 2021.

There certainly was a hard core of social and foreign policy conservatives in the 107th Congress, including Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, Kansas’ Sam Brownback, Kentucky’s Jim Bunning, New Hampshire’s Bob Smith, North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, Oklahoma’s Don Nickles and, I suppose, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, whose health had already deteriorated significantly.

If you wanted to add Arkansas’ Tim Hutchinson, Texas’ Phil Gramm and Colorado’s Wayne Allard, I might not put up much of a fight.  

But the biggest change, by far, has been the shrinkage of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (and the demise of “institutionalists”), who once played a major role in the party.

The list of moderate or “establishment” Republicans is short today, probably no more than two sitting senators, Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. (Utah’s Mitt Romney may also qualify as an institutionalist.)

But in 2001-2003, the Republican Senate roster included moderates such as Alaska’s Frank H. Murkowski, Arizona’s John McCain, Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, New Mexico’s Pete V. Domenici, Indiana’s Richard G. Lugar, Maine’s Olympia J. Snowe and Collins, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Missouri’s Kit Bond, Tennessee’s Bill Frist and Fred Thompson, Texas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison, Vermont’s Jim Jeffords (until he left the GOP and became an independent caucusing with the Democrats in June 2001), Virginia’s John W. Warner and Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Even conservatives Jon Kyl of Arizona, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon probably belong on that list given their style, which emphasized cooperation, compromise and comity, not ideological combat. 

I’m sure some will argue over which members belong in which category. I have not placed every member of that Senate into a category. That’s not my point.

But when you look at the Senate of just 20 years ago, you see how much the GOP has changed. 

Can you imagine McCain, Specter, Domenici, Hagel or Alaska’s Ted Stevens being cowed by Donald Trump? If you can, you certainly have a vivid imagination.

Yes, Senate Democrats have moved slightly to the left. But that’s primarily because Republican voters in states that once elected moderate Democrats will no longer do so. 

Bayh, once a popular Indiana governor and senator, tried to come out of retirement in 2016 but lost by 10 points to Republican Todd Young. Michelle Nunn, daughter of iconic Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, lost a 2014 Senate bid from the Peach State even though she stressed her pragmatic political views.

Twenty years ago, both North Dakota and South Dakota had two Democratic senators. So did West Virginia, Florida and Louisiana. Today, Republicans hold all but one of those seats, and it seems unlikely that a Democrat like Tom Daschle, Byron L. Dorgan, Bob Graham or Breaux could get elected today under anything short of an anti-Republican midterm tsunami.

Changes in Senate membership between the 107th and the 117th Congresses offer a clear picture of what has happened to the two parties. In the Senate, at least, Republicans have become more ideologically extreme over the past two decades.

GOP senators like Warner, Lugar, Frist, Chafee, Thompson, Hutchison, Specter, Cochran and Hagel have been replaced by members like Roger Marshall of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Mike Braun of Indiana and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

The GOP is an entirely different party now.

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