Definition of 'moderate' scrambled in current GOP
In a Donald Trump-led GOP, Republicans say the word "moderate" has less meaning.
Former Cranston, Rhode Island Mayor Allen Fung, a Republican, is running a strong campaign in a House district President Joe Biden won by 13 points in 2020, threatening an upset with a message of moderation.
"I'm not into divisiveness. I'm not into spreading any type of election denials. I'm my own person. I'm going to be that voice of moderation down there. And I believe that I will bring that voice of centrism," Fung told ABC News. "Hopefully, it's not just myself."
However, it's becoming increasingly unclear who would fit the mold of the type of moderate Fung hopes will join him in Congress.
What counts as moderation in a Republican Party transformed under Donald Trump is unclear, as strategists say ideological labels are getting increasingly scrambled by emphasis on personality and attitudes toward the former president.
Some lawmakers, like Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, tout their moderate bona fides, noting their centrist policies on social issues and fiscal conservatism. Candidates like Fung and Colorado GOP Senate nominee Joe O'Dea are deploying similar playbooks as they seek to follow them to Washington.
Yet, the term "moderate" is getting bandied about more broadly, both in the media and among party operators and leaders, though in reality, party members say those cast as moderates are those who have lower key personalities and keep some distance with Trump, the GOP's de facto leader.
"We've redefined conservatism, or I think the media largely has kind of in collusion with Trumpworld, redefined conservatism as Trumpism, and they're not the same thing," said former House GOP leadership aide Doug Heye. "And then if you've realtered what that term means, well, then moderate has to mean something different as well."
"I don't think there are many moderates, if any, in the Republican party today," added Republican National Committee member Bill Palatucci. "It's kind of an extinct breed. These days, the fight is between what I consider true conservatives and Trump apologists."
Among those who have gotten slapped with the label of "moderate" include lawmakers like retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and outgoing Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who lost her primary to a Trump-backed challenger this year. Both supporting Trump's impeachment after last year's Capitol riot, but Toomey boasts a 92% rating from the American Conservative Union, and Cheney has a 77% rating, based on their voting records.
Another Republican touted as a modern moderate is Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who won his seat in 2021 with a laser focus on education while refusing to bear hug Trump.
Yet Youngkin has pushed for bans on the teaching of "divisive concepts" in schools, called for requiring transgender students to have formal parental permission to identify with their gender identity and has looked to pull out of an agreement with other states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rumored to have an eye on a White House run in 2024, he's also been campaigning with people like Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who has spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Strategists say the misidentification of moderates is on the rise as voters become less attuned with policy priorities.
"If you're not raising your voice with pithy one liners on cable news, you're a moderate. In our politics it's become tone over substance. We do focus groups, raise your hand if you've been to the candidate's website, no one ever raises their hand," said one GOP strategist working on House races.
"So, how could Pat Toomey be a moderate? Well, because he doesn't come across as an asshole. That's it, period, end of discussion. We are living in a cable news, social media political time."
And even for voters who remain invested in conservative policies, Trump thoroughly revamped what counts as Republican orthodoxy.
On domestic issues, Trump threw fiscal conservatism out the window, favoring heavy government spending that increased the debt. And on the global stage, he overhauled the GOP's preference for free trade for one focused on "fair trade" forwarded by tariffs. And militarily, Trump shunned foreign interventions, a reversal for a party that historically advocated for a muscular armed presence overseas.
"I remember conservatives complaining about Ronald Reagan and big spending and some of his nominees and so forth. They held his feet to the fire. No one helped Donald Trump's feet to a matchstick," Heye said. "Donald Trump loves spending government money. And part of what that did is it exploded our deficit and our debt. And Republicans were put in the position of going along with Donald Trump on pretty much everything."
To be sure, Democrats are facing an identity schism of their own. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have thwarted marquee Democratic policies in the 50-50 Senate and kept alive an ongoing ideological tug-of-war.
Republicans' divides, meanwhile, are largely driven less by policy and more by Trump's vice-like grip on the GOP grassroots.
"If anyone has ever discussed publicly, Donald Trump, as an existential threat to the Republican Party, they are outside the tent and will find no flap to bring them back in," said one former Trump administration official.
"Those of us who are around Trump, I wouldn't cross the street to put Liz Cheney out if she was on fire. And it's almost entirely because she just couldn't find it in her devotion to the Republican Party to support the Republican president of the United States. I mean, she did for quite some time and then she just fell off the wagon. From our perspective, it's because when she walked away from Trump, she walked away from the Republican Party," the former official said.
However, some party strategists and members express concern that such rigidity could leave races in some parts of the country off the table.
O'Dea, the GOP Senate nominee in Colorado, has voiced repeated opposition to Trump and taken moderate stances on issues like abortion and healthcare. That tact has made the race against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, in a blue-leaning state surprisingly competitive, while GOP gubernatorial nominee Heidi Ganahl, who early in her campaign flirted with election conspiracies, is anticipated to lose her challenge to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis by double digits.
"I do think that to Joe represents a kind of Republican that will need to be nominated in future elections if Republicans are ever going to come back," said former Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams. "Heidi got in trouble early on because she threw in with the election conspiracy crowd. She has been paying a price for that ever since."
"If he pulls an upset, which I still think could happen, I think that there could be a lot of lessons drawn from Joe's campaign in other states," Wadhams said.
However, the label "moderate" is increasingly associated with the derogatory moniker "RINO," or Republican in name only, Wadhams said, threatening ideologically moderate candidates like O'Dea in primaries and making it harder to ultimately win office.
"I think the traditional conservative or moderate labels don't really apply in today's Republican Party because I don't think there's an ideological difference on issues of the day. A conservative Republican and a moderate Republican are still going to be, nine times out of 10, about the same on every issue facing the country," GOP pollster Robert Blizzard said.
That's firmly shifting the ideological spectrum of lawmakers still in the party further to the right.
When asked who would be considered a moderate in today's GOP, the former Trump administration official pointed to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell has a lifetime 87% rating from the American Conservative Union.
Luke Barr contributed to this report.
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