There are extreme Republicans, but the leadership is not about to allow the party to go the way of the Whigs
News watchers these days have to strain their head not to hear a story about Republicans going off the deep end. Whether it be the asinine attempts to derail Obamacare in Congress, impeachment talks, or harsh voter identification laws passed in North Carolina, some of the more extreme members of the Republican party are front and center.
The question is whether or not these very conservative members are taking control of the Republican party and perhaps throwing it the way of the Whigs. I don't just mean as talking-heads on Fox News. I mean leaders of the party.
I can think of two ways we can figure this out. First, we can look at who is leading the party in Congress, since they are elected by their fellow congressmen. Second, we can look at who the party is most likely to nominate in 2016.
On the first point, it's important to remember that most congressmen have little power, even if they scream from the high tops. Loud members of this group include former Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Anthony Weiner. They may have appeared a lot on television, but didn't hold much sway when it came to legislating. The key is to look at who chairs committees. These are the people who usher legislation through the US government. Those who hold the purse strings. The people who set the agenda. The people who hold sway.
It used to be that seniority was the main determinant of committee chairmanship, but that's changed over the past 20 years. Other factors such party unity and the ability to fundraise are more important in determining chairmanships, which make it a good measure of where the center of power is. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is actually slightly more toward the middle than the median Republican. Per DW-nominate scores, which is based on roll call voting, even the more conservative Minority Whip John Cornyn is within a standard deviation of his party's center.
The chairmen of the important committees also tend to be more moderate. Senators Grassley of Iowa, Hatch of Utah, and Shelby of Alabama are all more moderate than the caucus as a whole. In fact, Grassley is the 7th least conservative Republican in the Senate. Only the conservative Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is still more moderate than Marco Rubio, is to the right part of the caucus.
This extends to the House as well. There is no score for Speaker Boehner, but Majority Leader Eric Cantor is more moderate than the potential 2016 presidential nominees per Nate Silver. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is right in the middle of the Republican caucus per DW-nominate scores. The chairmen of the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Transportation, and Ways and Means are all more moderate than the caucus as a whole. This includes Fred Upton of Energy and Commerce, who is more moderate than 80% of his caucus. Only Pete Sessions of the Rules Committee is more conservative than the caucus of a whole.
Probably more important is who the party's presidential nominee is. This person projects the image of a party, and if (s)he wins, chooses the national party's leadership. President Obama is a non-extreme liberal whose multiracial background echoes a party welcoming to moderates and a growing diverse population. The latter is part of the reason there have been calls for a Marco Rubio nomination.
Since the party reforms of the 1970s, a candidate backed by the establishment hasn't lost the nomination. Even after the anti-establishment Tea Party surge of 2010, a relatively weak Mitt Romney was able to corral the nomination thanks to establishment support.
So who is the Republican establishment apparently supporting now? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. For the time being, the "selection" of Christie suggests a Republican leadership that isn't about to go off the deep end. It tells the story of a party leadership that wants to win the White House and will do what it thinks is necessary to win.
Christie is not currently loved by the grassroots, though as Nate Cohn points out he can likely overcome the generally inaccurate early primary polling data. On the key issues that are important to the Republican base such as abortion and gay marriage, he's not "moderate". Christie is certainly no liberal on taxation issues. That's likely why the Republican leadership is backing him, when they wouldn't do the same for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. He's presentable to the different parts of the Republican base when it comes down to it, even if the numbers don't say it right now.
Still, Christie is not that conservative on the whole. Yes, Christie is pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and just vetoed gun control legislation. Abortion, however, is something most Americans are split on. Christie also signed a law banning gay conversion therapy, and he signed 10 different gun control laws recently. In other words, Christie is a kind of ideological hodgepodge. This can best be seen by looking at ideological ranking systems. This takes the subjectivity out of trying to parse out where exactly a candidate stands.
As Nate Silver did originally, you can average scores across different systems to get a good idea of where a candidate stands. In the case of Christie, he'd be the most moderate Republican candidate in the past 50 years.
Christie's scoring on the two rankings we have available place him more toward the center than any other candidate to win a Republican nomination since 1964. Some of you might say that Christie is more conservative than these scores indicate. But it seems to me that for every issue where Christie takes a conservative stand, he takes a moderate stance. So that while he's conservative on taxes, he's for campaign finance reform and green energy.
The point is he's more toward the center than previous nominees. He no doubt will move somewhat towards the right, once he wins a second term in November. Still, even a hard turn right would still leave him as relatively moderate. A Republican leadership that was looking to move more towards the right would not be interested in nominating this man or nominating the committee chairmen they are in congress. This is a party that wants to win. It's a party leadership that at least right now is following the historical pattern of wanting to nominate a more moderate candidate, after losing the the presidential election in two consecutive cycles.
All of this point to a party that, on an electoral level, is still functioning. These are signs of a party that isn't going away anytime soon and may win back all elected federal branches by 2016.
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