Moderate Republicans Test Party Unity

Nashua, New Hampshire -- It's Friday night and the biggest football game of the year in Nashua has just kicked off: North verse South--the cross-town high school rivalry that brings out nearly 3,000 ecstatic fans clad in blues and purples.

As the players battle under the bright lights on this cool fall night, a short man with a shiny bald head traverses the long line of late comers making corny jokes and shaking every hand he can find. In a beige collared shirt that sticks out among all the colorful football paraphernalia, former Congressman Charlie Bass, (R-NH), is trying to convince voters he deserves his old seat back.

Besides fiscal policy--which is as anti-Obama as it gets--Bass' pitch to voters is different from what most Republican challengers are offering this year. On abortion, he's pro-choice. On Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her lieutenants, and their environmental and energy policies: he's prepared to sit at the table and hammer out solutions.

"I'm perfectly happy to work and discuss issues and resolutions to problems with Democrats and I always have been," says Bass, who also likes to tout the times he stood up to former Republican Speaker Denny Hastert.

Sentiments like that would be political suicide in conservative southern and western states. But this isn't conservative country. This is the Northeast.

While the GOP is being fueled by Tea Party conservatism elsewhere across the country, up here moderate Republicans are on the rise.

Before 2006 the region was home to numerous moderate Republicans. In the ensuing elections every House Republican from New England was defeated, leaving a swath of liberal Democrats representing Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

This year the tide looks to have turned back to the GOP. Bass is among a handful of moderate Republicans who have strong chances of winning in New Hampshire, Connecticut and possibly even in Massachusetts--a group that includes Frank Giunta in New Hampshire's 1st District, Jeff Perry in Massachusetts' 10th, Richard Hanna in New York's 24th, and Nan Hayworth in New York's 19th.

The rise of these moderates will have far-reaching ramifications for the party, especially if Republicans regain the majority by only a slim margin.

The glue that's uniting Tea Party supporters with mainstream Republicans from all regions of the nation is fiscal policy, but simmering beneath that unity are internal Republican Party disagreements that could cause serious tremors in the party's ranks.

Besides being pro-choice, many of these Northeastern Republicans are pro gay marriage and want to unwind the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Many support federal funding for stem cell research, want to see global warming taken more seriously, and oppose privatizing social security.

Republicans are unified for now behind cutting spending and opposing President Obama, but those touchy issues--some of them social--will test the alliance as the party moves from campaigning to legislating, political analysts say.

"I think one of the major problems that Republicans have is a cultural and religious problem, frankly," University of New Hampshire Political Science Professor Andrew E. Smith said. "The Republican Party in the South is talking about religious issues and social conservative issues--that doesn't really resonate with a Northeastern Republican for whom these issues are largely of not much consequence."

If Bass wins, he may have a congressional ally in Dan Debicella, a state senator who is running neck and neck with Democratic incumbent Jim Himes in Connecticut's 4th Congressional District. At a recent campaign event in Fairfield County, Debicella warned of the danger facing the GOP if newly elected members of Congress try to legislate their conservative morals.

"When either political party gets radicalized they lose," Debicella said. "If Republicans make the mistake of going too far to the right on social issues that people don't agree with them on then they're going to lose. And that's why I'm running as a moderate. I'm running as someone who says we need to get government out of our economy and out of our social lives."

Economists are predicting a sluggish economy no matter which party wins the election, and there is a finite number of economic policies on which Congress can vote.

In the 1990s and again under President George W. Bush in the 2000s, Republican leaders put social issues on the agenda to get the party's base revved up. With a lingering bad economy ahead of the 2012 elections party leaders may be tempted to turn to social issues again.

If that happens, party leaders should expect near wholesale opposition from their colleagues in the Northeast.

"I'm willing to stand up to my party when they're wrong," Debicella vowed. "And I think there are, hopefully, enough other moderate Republicans out there who are willing to stand up to the far right on these social issues that we can make a difference."