U.S. Senate: No Place for Old Moderates

Feb 25, 2011 4:34pm

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf reports:

The middle is an important place in American politics. Be they moderate, independent or simply uninterested and ignorant of what’s going on in politics, voters in the middle decide Presidential elections.

And whoever controls more moderate lawmakers generally controls the House and Senate.

But for all its importance, the middle is turning into a very lonely place, especially on Capitol Hill, where the National Journal finds the ideological space to be less and less moderate.

For only the second time in the history of their ratings was the most conservative Democrat more liberal than the most liberal Republican. That means that party loyalty is at  a premium both when it comes to votes in the senate and when it comes to nominations for state parties.

The war on moderates is not a trend that seems likely to end any time soon. Start at the middle of the political spectrum and move out in either direction and it is hard to find a lawmaker who isn’t either retired, retiring, defeated or in jeopardy.

The great partisan divide during the 2010 legislative session met somewhere between Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, according to National Journal’s tally.

Nelson is one of the most endangered Democrats going into his 2012 re-election campaign. Voinovich, meanwhile, chose not to run for reelection in 2010. Sen. Joe Lieberman is the next most conservative Democrat after Nelson. (Lieberman is an Independent, but caucuses with Democrats even after losing the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006). He too will not seek reelection, which he announced in January.

Next in the moderation chart on the Democratic side: Sen. John Tester, who is already facing a 2012 challenge from Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont..

Then there are three Democrats not up for reelection. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who is expected to face a tough challenge and Sen. Jim Webb, who is not running for reelection. Finally on the chart comes Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who eked out a victory in 2010 after eking out a primary victory against a tough Democratic challenger.

Back on the Republican side of moderation, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is likely to face a primary challenge. She was the only Republican Senator to vote in favor of a version of the health reform bill, even though she opposed the final version. After Snowe comes Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, faces a primary challenge and many state party officials have already lined up againt him. Next comes Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the Republican nomination in her state, but won an improbable write-in campaign to keep her senate seat in 2010.

Then comes Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who came to the senate with great help from the Tea Party, but has proven to be a moderate and independent voice. He too is likely to face a tough reelection challenge in 2012.

In all, of the 26 most moderate senators by vote 2010 tally – 13 on either side of the aisle – there have been five retirements in the face of a challenge, one outright defeat, two primary losses and seven of what are expected to be the most hotly contested races in 2012. And that’s not counting then-Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who did not show up as a moderate voter because he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party to avoid a primary challenge. He ended up losing the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania instead of the Republican one.

In other words, the moderate middle of the senate is a tumultuous place to be.

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