Christensen: Moderates going way of dodo birds

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 18, 2014 

With the retirements of Democrat Mike McIntyre of Lumberton and Republican Howard Coble of Greensboro, we are seeing the continued extinction of the congressional moderate.

North Carolina is, polls suggest, a middle-of-the road state. But increasingly, moderate lawmakers are going the way of the dodo bird.

McIntyre is the latest to fall. After representing the 7th Congressional District in Southeast North Carolina for 18 years, McIntyre, 57, decided to retire rather than face likely defeat. McIntyre was an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat who voted against President Barack Obama’s health care plan.

But it was unlikely that he would have been re-elected in a district that was drawn by the GOP legislature to elect a Republican.

Coble is retiring for a more traditional reason. He is 82 and has had health issues. He is serving his 30th year in Congress, which is a pretty good run.

The nonpartisan National Journal rates members of Congress on a 1 to 422 liberal scale. Someone who was exactly in the middle would be ranked 211.

In 2012, McIntyre was ranked the 182nd most liberal member of Congress – making him the most conservative Democrat in the Tar Heel delegation – and Coble was rated the 269th most liberal.

Other moderates have also left the House recently: Reps. Heath Shuler (No. 179 in 2012) a Democrat from Waynesville, Larry Kissell (177 in 2012), a Democrat from Biscoe, and Bob Etheridge (175 in 2010), a Democrat from Lillington.

It is possible that the only moderate left standing after this year’s election will be Republican Walter Jones (180) of Farmville. But that is not a sure thing. He faces Taylor Griffin of New Bern in the GOP primary – his most serious challenge in years from the political right.

All other members of the state’s congressional delegation are either conservatives such as Renee Ellmers, Virginia Foxx, Patrick McHenry, Mark Meadows and Richard Hudson, or liberals such as G.K. Butterfield, David Price or Mel Watt, who recently resigned to take a housing post in the Obama administration.

Nationwide issue

What is happening in North Carolina has also been occurring all across the country.

The so-called Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats, many of them white Southerners, shrunk from 54 in 2008 to 26 in 2010 to 14 in 2012. It will likely shrink further after November.

Such political polarization makes governing more difficult and political gridlock more likely, said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University. Moderates are the ones most likely to work across party lines to reach compromises.

Gerrymandering contributed to McIntyre’s and Shuler’s decisions not to seek re-election; it also led to Kissell’s defeat.

But Taylor notes that gerrymandering, the clumping together of like-minded voters in the same district, is not the only reason why the middle is hollowing out.

Taylor says the same phenomenon of polarization is happening in the U.S. Senate, where elections are statewide.

Among the explanations offered, Taylor said, are a geographic sorting of voters across the country, and the media becoming a polarizing force, with Fox News feeding one worldview and MSNBC another.

Economic inequality polarizing

There is also a theory that growing economic inequality is leading to political polarization.

“There is no doubt we have had the polarization,” Taylor said. “The last time we have approached this was the last part of the 19th century. And we are seeing moderates retiring. They are coming from competitive districts, and they are either going to ... lose or they are going to retire.”

In most cases, Taylor said, the moderates are likely to be replaced by more ideologically driven candidates.

Shuler, the moderate Democrat who was a leading critic of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was replaced by Republican Mark Meadows, a tea party leader who pushed last year for a government shutdown.

The pressure is now on for members of Congress to take more ideologically pure stands and to avoid working with the opposing party.

Ellmers, who has the most conservative voting record in the delegation according to The National Journal, is being pushed to her right by the tea party elements of her party.

Price, who has the most liberal voting record in the delegation, according to the publication, was threatened from his political left when Rep. Brad Miller considered challenging him in 2012.

Being in the middle is a very dangerous place to stand these days.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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