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Midterm Elections Oust Several Moderate Republicans

November 24, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Among the many congressional Republicans swept from office on Election Day, one type of Republican was hit especially hard, the moderate, such as Iowa’s Jim Leach.

REP. JIM LEACH (R), Iowa: Clearly, this year the country wanted change.

KWAME HOLMAN: Of the 29 House seats Republicans lost, 11 were in the Northeast and 10 more were in the Midwest. The party’s losses were fewer in traditionally Republican territories.

New Hampshire’s Charles Bass.

REP. CHARLES BASS (R), New Hampshire: The Republican Party is in danger of becoming a regional party of the South and the West.

KWAME HOLMAN: Of the most prominent Republicans to lose their seats, several were among the House and Senate’s best-known moderates: Ohio Senator Mike DeWine, who compromised with Democrats last year to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees; Congressmen Leach of Iowa, one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, he voted against the Iraq war and long has favored abortion rights; Connecticut’s Nancy Johnson, a pro-abortion rights and pro-environment stalwart, whose views earned her 24 years in Washington; and Congressman Bass of New Hampshire, last year, he rallied colleagues to join Democrats in blocking Republican efforts to permit oil exploration on Alaska’s north slope.

Those four members, with a combined 78 years of experience in Congress, were rejected by voters. Here’s what they think happened.

Possible reasons for results

REP. CHARLES BASS: We had a real red tide in New Hampshire. It was a tidal wave. And in retrospect, with straight ticket voting -- which we have in the state, as well -- it probably was impossible for me to win.

REP. NANCY JOHNSON (R), Connecticut: There was just the antipathy to the president, to some of the things the right wing of my party has espoused, to Iraq. And it added up, for the first time in my 30 years in political life, to actually the individual member and their record not mattering.

REP. JIM LEACH: All I can say is that I'm comfortable with the positions I've taken. And I also respect the public for wanting to express change in the way the public has the right to do, which is at the ballot box.

SEN. MIKE DEWINE (R), Ohio: I can't tell you how many people looked at me and said, you know, "Mike, I really like you. You're a good guy. You've done a really good job as a United States senator, but I'm not voting for you."

KWAME HOLMAN: The Republicans all agreed that widespread opposition to the Iraq war, coupled with the unpopularity of President Bush, played large roles in their ouster, but there were differences about other factors that brought them down.

Negative ads and other tactics

KWAME HOLMAN: New Hampshire's Charles Bass said his party's care-free style of governing caught up with it.

REP. CHARLES BASS: Quite frankly, I told the speaker this a year ago -- over a year ago -- that I thought that the Republicans had become like the Democrats were in 1994.

There was an element of sort of laissez-faire easiness about our leadership, that somehow we were insulated enough from mainstream America, so that we could get away with having an indicted individual as acting majority leader, that the agenda really was only about the Republican base and it wasn't about the great Middle America, where most of the voters are.

And when the speaker failed to respond forcefully and quickly to the Mark Foley affair, I think that was basically the end of our majority.

KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut's Nancy Johnson argued that, in her case, negative ads and other campaign tactics distorted voters' perceptions, preventing her party's legitimate accomplishments from being heard.

REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Pensions aren't finished, but we made good, great leaps forward. Medicare isn't finished, but it's going to provide us with a model that will help us across the board, with every age group.

And we started fixing that in the Deficit Reduction Act, so that Medicaid can concentrate on chronic illness, as well. It's very exciting, very positive, but it isn't stuff that the citizens understand yet, and that's why record really wasn't it. Just anguish, anger, and worry about Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio's Mike DeWine said his downfall was due to corruption within the state's GOP, where both the Republican governor and a popular congressman were indicted earlier this year.

MIKE DEWINE: In Ohio, it was a particular problem, because we had the state scandals, which I had nothing to do with, but it created this horrible, horrible climate in Ohio. So Ohio was the perfect storm. Ohio was the national trend; Ohio was the state trend. You know, I may be wrong, but I like to think that I could have survived one of them, but not two of them.

Ideological divisions may grow

KWAME HOLMAN: Whatever the reasons they lost, DeWine and the others say the reality now is there will be fewer moderate Republicans willing to compromise with the incoming Democratic majority in Congress. They say, as a result, the ideological divisions that have contributed to years of partisanship and gridlock may grow wider.

REP. JIM LEACH: The great weakness in the American legislative process is the middle has virtually collapsed. And how to reconstruct a principled center, a center of gravity in American politics, may be the hardest single thing at this particular time.

KWAME HOLMAN: New Hampshire's Bass said the Republican Party is at risk of permanently losing its moderate middle, if its agenda continues to cater to religious and social conservatives.

REP. CHARLES BASS: If they want it to be that way, it will be that way. If they want to develop, and explore, and debate issues that are attractive to Northeastern and Midwestern candidates, it will be a very different situation.

And it's really up to them, because if it's just "us" versus "them," and the Democrats succeed in moderating their agenda a little bit, it will be very hard for Republicans to win in New England, very hard.

Future of bipartisanship?

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, as is typical following an election, members of both parties pledged to work together in the new Congress, despite their recent partisan history.

REP. MIKE DEWINE: I hope that the talk of bipartisanship turns out to be true. It is really what the American people want. It's what the American people are yearning for, actually demanding. And I think if people don't understand that, they've missed what the American people really want.

REP. NANCY JOHNSON: You know, when I came, it was just assumed. Once the election was over, you did your work here, and those who thought the same about something worked together. We need to get back to that, and we will get back to that because, in the end, it's good policy that makes good politics.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Jim Leach, heading back to Iowa City after 30 years of service in Washington, was less optimistic.

REP. JIM LEACH: I have to say I'm disappointed with the general direction and tone of American politics that is set in Congress, the comity levels, the fact that people seem to be increasingly making decisions on what outcome is best for a political party or for an individual rather than what the national interest is.

That has nothing to do with what's best for the country, and that is something legislatures have to return to.

KWAME HOLMAN: As their staffs clear the way for new inhabitants, these outgoing Republican moderates end long careers in Congress, hoping the party will heed their advice.