When Moderate Republican Senators Walked the Earth

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You think Susan Collins is a “moderate Republican?” Back in the day, “moderate Republicans” like Chuck Percy and Ed Brooke hung out with Jesse Jackson! Photo: D. Michael Cheers/AP

Ah, these terrible “moderate Republicans” of the Senate! They’re obstructing everything the GOP promised to accomplish when they took power last November. All sorts of right-wing groups ranging from the Senate Conservatives Fund to the Heritage Foundation to FreedomWorks are dedicated to their destruction. Steve Bannon has declared war on them.

But here’s the thing: The Senate’s moderate Republicans have been hunted nearly to extinction over the years. Within living memory, not only moderate but by any definition liberal Republicans were thick on the ground in the U.S. Senate. But today, “moderate” is mainly just a term of contempt for any GOP senator maverick-y enough to break ranks on something the heavily conservative party has decided it needs.

To illustrate the trend, I looked at the gold standard for measurements of congressional Republicans’ ideological fidelity since 1971, the American Conservative Union’s lifetime ratings for members of the Senate. I took a less-than-50-percent rating as a pretty noncontroversial benchmark for moderation.

Forty years ago, in 1977, there were 14 Senate Republicans with a less-than-50-percent lifetime rating from ACU: Ted Stevens, Lowell Weicker, Charles Percy, James Pearson, Charles Mathias, Edward Brooke, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Richard Schweiker, John Chafee, and Robert Stafford.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, the number of “moderate” Republicans in the Senate had dropped to nine: Lowell Weicker, David Durenberger, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, John Heinz, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, Robert Stafford, and Dan Evans.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, the Senate’s moderate GOP tribe had shrunk to five: Susan Collins, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Arlen Specter, John Chafee, and Jim Jeffords.

Ten years ago, in 2007, there were two moderate Republican senators left according to the ACU standard:  Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter.

And now, there’s just one: Susan Collins (who temporarily lifted herself to a 50-plus ACU lifetime rating before lapsing back into heresy).

Collins is now thinking about leaving Washington for the cozier confines of Augusta, Maine, by running for governor. Not everyone left is a hard-core conservative; Lisa Murkowski will still be around with her 60 percent lifetime ACU rating. But it’s not like there is a bench of moderate Republicans out there moving inexorably toward the U.S. Senate. So in a very real sense, Collins could be the last of the breed. It’s been a long sharp downward road to nowhere.

When Moderate Republican Senators Walked the Earth