The only moderate who mattered

In a speech I delivered last month, I argued that moderates need to vote in primaries if they are to take back the Republican Party and bring sanity back to Congress.

Eagle clutching American flag with an I Voted sticker on it, perched on a shelf of American history booksPundits are pointing to yesterday’s gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia as proof that moderates are fighting back. Those two races prove nothing. New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, is a phenomenon not to be duplicated elsewhere. Chris Christie didn’t run as a moderate Republican. He ran as Chris Christie, the savior who brought his state back from Hurricane Sandy. In Virginia, voters had a choice of two losers. By default, one of them had to win.

The only race decided yesterday that has significance for the rise of the moderates is the Republican congressional primary in Alabama. In that race, moderate Bradley Byrne defeated tea partyer Dean Young.  It’s significant because it shows that moderates can beat back the fringe candidates with a concerted effort. It is also significant because it proves primaries matter.

We no longer elect our congressional representatives in the general election.  They’re elected in primaries.

There are two phenomena at work here. One is that fewer and fewer vote in primary elections, and they’re the true believers. They drank their party’s Kool-Aid. Second, more congressional seats are safe Democrat or safe Republican. Therefore, those few who vote in the primaries and caucuses decide who represents us all. Alabama’s Byrne will win the general election easily because it’s a safe Republican seat.

New York Times political columnist Nate Silver nailed it when he wrote in a Dec. 27, 2012, column: “[I]ndividual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.”

In 1992, according to Silver’s estimates, there were 103 congressional swing districts – districts in which either party could likely win the seat.  Now, he estimates 35 swing seats. That’s 35 out of 435 seats. That means 400 seats are safely Democrat or safely Republican. That means the election is decided in the primary.

Now let’s take a look at the typical Republican voter versus the typical Republican primary voter.

A September Pew Research Center/USA Today poll found that 53 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who always vote in primary elections want Congress to overturn, undermine, and kill Obamacare. Only 38 percent of Republicans who don’t always vote in primaries feel that way.

And GOP primary voters certainly don’t want compromise. Twice as many GOP primary voters say there has been too much compromise already with congressional Democrats than those who believe more compromise is needed. In contrast, more non-primary voters want compromise rather than gridlock.

So given that more districts than ever are locked into a partisan position, and given that only the far right fringe votes in GOP primaries – and the far left fringe in Democrat primaries – the only solution is for moderates to become more engaged in primary battles. Until yesterday’s Alabama primary, that wasn’t happening.

If Congress is to become more moderate and reflect the views of the majority of Americans, Alabama’s primary must be duplicated across the United States. If Congress is to become more moderate and reflect the views of the majority of Americans, moderates must turn out to vote in the primaries. That is where congressional elections are decided. Byrne proved it can be done. And that’s significant.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at


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