The New Radicals: How the Moderate Wing is Shaping the 2014 Elections

In the wake of last week’s startling upset of Eric Cantor, it would be easy to believe that the political middle will once again be left out in the cold. Yet something unique is happening this primary season. Political moderates, the perennial underdogs of party primaries, the forgotten footnotes to the partisan favorites, are mobilizing. It’s a trend across the country, seen not just in the Republican backlash against the tea party, but in independent candidates and unique, moderate Democrats.

Moderates are nothing new in American politics. Traditionally, moderate political thought has manifested itself in think tanks, organizations founded and designed to move their party to the middle after a particularly bad election year.

In 1985, in the wake of Walter Mondale’s landslide defeat, Democrats founded the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization aimed at moving the Democratic Party closer to the center. The Republican Leadership Council was founded in 1993 in the wake of the party’s 1992 defeats with the same purpose.

Moderate policy has also been traditionally viewed as a political necessity for candidates and incumbents elected in states where the opposing party holds the majority, or where political views don’t neatly align with party. This has manifested itself in coalitions like the Blue Dog Democrats and the Republican Main Street Partnership.

These Washington-based organizations have been on the decline for some time.

In 2011, both the DLC and the RLC dissolved. Members of the Blue Dogs and Main Street Partnership have been cannibalized by their own party, defeated, or chose not to run. Their membership is now a fraction of what it once was, and non-party-affiliated organizations like Common Sense Coalition have been left carrying the torch.

The result has been a marked increase in partisanship since 2006, as voters have been increasingly limited in their choices at the ballot.

Yet in 2014, moderate voters are reasserting their power.

Moderate candidates are appearing on the ballot in Maine, Iowa, California, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Montana, and elsewhere. Whereas in the past, a moderate turn was promoted by party establishments to compensate for electoral losses, in 2014, moderate candidates represent business-friendly Democrats, socially-inclusive Republicans, independents, and everything in between.

In California, former San Diego City Councillor and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio is now running against the Democratic incumbent in California’s 52nd Congressional District. As an openly gay Republican, DeMaio has drawn national attention, but it is in his policy views that he cuts against the grain of the Republican party. While taking a pro-business tact, his approach to social issues — keeping the government out of the bedroom — is unique among mainstream Republicans.

It is not just Republicans who are moving to the center.

In California’s 17th Congressional District, Ro Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, is taking a pro-business innovation approach to policy against incumbent Democrat Mike Honda, who is rated the most liberal congressman by the National Journal. It is exceptional that a Democrat would challenge a seven-term incumbent Democrat by running to the center, not the left.

Both DeMaio and Khanna soared through their respective primaries, defeating tea party candidates to pass through their state’s top-two primary system and on to the general election.

Moderate candidates don’t necessarily have to win to have an impact on the election.

In Iowa, former Republican and current Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon came in second in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. Taking 23.6 percent of the vote in a crowded Democratic primary, Vernon nearly forced a runoff against the establishment candidate. To take nearly a quarter of the vote in a crowded primary is impressive, but to do so as a moderate is remarkable.

In Montana, a similar feat occurred in the Democratic primary for Senate. In a time when incumbents typically face challengers from the partisan extremes, interim Senator John Walsh faced a challenge from the center — former Republican Lt. Governor John Bohlinger.

Against an incumbent, establishment candidate, moderate Bohlinger took 22.6 percent of the vote, a significant amount considering the nature of the primary.

It’s not just party candidates who are making waves as moderates.

In Pennsylvania, 24-year-old Nick Troiano, a co-founder of the Millennial advocacy group, The Can Kicks Back, is running on a platform based on public frustration with both parties and acute frustrations that Millennials feel in particular. His platform of fiscal responsibility, economic mobility, and environmental sustainability represents the kind of platform that many moderates are focused on in 2014.

The moderate movement is not defined by generation. Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator from South Dakota, is running for his old seat as an independent. His campaign, like many other moderates, is a reaction to Washington partisanship and gridlock, and is focused on resolving the ongoing polarization over the federal budget.

In 2014, moderate candidates represent a diversity of party affiliations, age groups, locations, and experiences. Yet despite their diversity, these candidates demonstrate remarkable unity.

These candidates embrace policies which are strikingly similar despite their disparate party affiliation. Broad national issues such as fiscal responsibility and social inclusiveness are prominently featured on their websites. Government reforms are highlighted as a means to fix partisanship, and buzzwords like “common sense,” “pragmatic,” and “problem solver” reoccur frequently.

The growing strength and assertiveness of this movement is evidenced by the electoral success of some of these candidates, like Carl DeMaio. It is also evidenced in the populist approach of their campaigns, focused on the recruitment and training of passionate activists — a tactic that has helped the tea party to exert outsized influence for four years.

Yet moderates do not have to achieve electoral victory in 2014 to have a lasting impact on the political dialogue or future elections. By forming volunteer organizations around moderate candidates, voters can force more establishment candidates to speak to their issues in the same way that tea party candidates, even when they lose, can force establishment Republican candidates to move to the right.

Equally as significant, 2014 is serving to be a formative year for moderate voters. The equal presence of moderate candidates on both sides of the aisle, and the universality of the policies they support, indicates that the moderate movement is not defined by party affiliation, but rather by the issues.

By unifying behind moderate candidates, voters are taking the initial steps to form a unified moderate voter network which will pay high dividends in future elections. Political groups like the Centrist Project are moving to capitalize on this formative organization and facilitate its growth.

2014 represents a unique year in politics, yet few commentators have picked up on its special nature. As voters continue to rally around this unique crop of moderate candidates, their organizational and funding strength will continue to grow.

Though the political middle has existed in a vacuum between the two parties for a number of years, don’t expect this to continue. The moderates are making moves, and planting seeds, and candidates on both sides should take notice.

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