Even Oscar Wilde, socialist and anarchist that he was, would likely bristle at the radical dysfunction of American politics today. Wilde famously preferred “everything in moderation, including moderation.” But 2018 may be the year that lawmakers and voters alike crystallize their preference for a slight spin on the playwright’s words: a Congress in which nothing is in moderation, except for moderation.
This shift has been some time coming. In the last midterm elections, in 2014, only about 4 percent of congressional candidates were ideologically moderate, according to data compiled by Danielle Thomsen, a political-science professor at UC Irvine, who categorized candidates by their campaign donors. The proportion of moderates on the campaign trail “has been steadily declining since the 1980s,” Thomsen told me. “It takes a lot of guts to run for Congress as a moderate in the current environment.”
This is not only because campaigns tend to favor personalities over policy goals and apocalyptic rhetoric over good-faith debate. It’s also because Congress itself disincentivizes reaching across the aisle. Work with a Democrat? Bid your perfect Heritage Action Scorecard farewell. Consider a GOP judicial nominee? Hope you weren’t too attached to that committee gavel.
It’s worth exploring, then, how moderate candidates today—however few they may be—manage to survive, and how they're pitching themselves in the final days of their midterm campaigns. The candidates and political strategists I've spoken with believe that constituencies that value compromise still exist, as well as voters who feel invested in issues rather than parties. Candidates have tailored their campaigns accordingly, focusing on local issues, largely uncontroversial national topics such as infrastructure, and as little talk of Donald Trump as possible. Call it the moderate playbook, whose fate in November could signal a new hope for bipartisanship—or affirm its extinction.
Harley Rouda is betting on that playbook to unseat a 28-year House incumbent. In Orange County, California, Rouda is challenging Dana Rohrabacher, the Kremlin-friendly Republican who’s been steadfast in his support for President Trump.
A liberal fantasy, Rouda is not. He’s a 56-year-old real-estate executive who donated to John Kasich’s presidential campaign and would rather not indulge in talk of impeachment.
He didn’t register as a Democrat until after the 2016 election; he’d been an Independent since 1997 and was a Republican before that.
He’s not the ideal conservative, either; he supports Medicare for all and free college tuition. But he’s still trying to attract conservatives to his campaign, which touts endorsements from local longtime Republicans. In one ad, a man wearing a palm-tree-emblazoned shirt lauds Rouda as “someone who can play to the middle, and bring us together.” It’s not unusual to see Republicans for Harley signs across Newport Beach and Balboa Island.
Rouda often refers to himself as “pro-business” and “pro-economy,” which have long been handy catchall descriptors for anything from regulatory relief to tax reform. It’s a smart move, one Democratic strategist told me, especially in Orange County, where pricey real estate and yacht-club-goers abound. “I have candidates create a list of what makes them different from a national Democrat,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of current involvement in midterm campaigns. “Often it’s that they served in the military or they run a business. That’s where a moderate campaign starts.”
Differentiating oneself from the national party is especially crucial in 2018, the source said, when candidates such as the self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dominate media coverage of the left. “The key is to be able to tell voters what you’re not,” the strategist said. “If you can’t find the few specific things to separate yourself, you’re starting from a real deficit.”
So voters won’t see a candidate like Rouda, for example, hypothesizing about Russian collusion or debating the merits of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Instead, he’ll lament that two years into Trump’s presidency, no infrastructure package has reached the floor. “We’ve had Infrastructure Week every week for 50 weeks,” Rouda told me in a recent phone interview. In his view, this is an example of how “continued partisan bickering and extremism” can prevent even an issue with “great bipartisan support” from moving forward.
When we talked, Rouda was careful to tie his discussion of any issue back to his district. This seems like a small point, but as campaigns continue to drift away from the Tip O’Neill–favored dictum that all politics is local, it may be crucial for Rouda as a moderate. When the candidate talked about health care, he talked about how his opponent had voted multiple times to eliminate coverage for preexisting conditions, which he said affected 300,000 people under the age of 65 in his district. When he talked about the environment, he talked about the need to contain the jet noise and pollution from John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana.
The challenges on the campaign trail are steep for House and Senate hopefuls alike. The race for Senator Bob Corker’s seat in Tennessee lays this bare. Like Rouda, Democrat Phil Bredesen is adhering to the moderate playbook in the hopes of besting an ardently pro-Trump Republican. Bredesen, a popular former governor of the state, is challenging Representative Marsha Blackburn. John Tanner, a former Tennessee congressman who founded the Blue Dog Coalition—a group of the House’s most conservative Democrats—told me that Bredesen is the Platonic ideal of a moderate: “financially responsible and socially tolerant.” Blackburn, for her part, blends her views entirely with Trump’s. When the president held a rally for her in Nashville earlier this year, she focused her entire speech on supporting his agenda.
Tanner, who retired from Congress in 2010, said the race’s close polling gives him hope that voters do want a return to the middle. “But oftentimes they aren’t presented with that model,” he said.
Bredesen may be the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, whose press office has flooded my inbox with statements about the ballooning federal deficit, offering a plan (in all caps) to balance the budget within six years. Federal borrowing was once conservatives’ cause célèbre. But by the time Republicans shuttled through a massive tax-cut package late last year, even amid projections of a huge spike in the deficit, the issue seemed to have lost its appeal. Nevertheless, as with infrastructure, it remains a topic unlikely to draw partisan ire one way or the other—making it a valuable talking point for a candidate like Bredesen.
These issues are what candidates like Bredesen talk about instead of talking about Trump. Bredesen has largely avoided national media—he declined to be interviewed for this story—and thus the news of the day. One notable exception was Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination: Bredesen ultimately sided with his party’s lone yea, fellow moderate Joe Manchin, who’s facing a tough reelection in West Virginia. "If the FBI report had something in it which was much more strongly corroborative of [Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault], I think that would be a different issue," Bredesen told local media. "But it didn't, and of course I didn't get a chance to see what was in it."
Voters are more likely to hear Bredesen urgently discussing Asian carp. The fish has invaded much of West Tennessee, starving out native species, and this has hit the state’s commercial-fishing industry hard. This summer, Bredesen announced his agenda to curb the population. His campaign, according to a spokeswoman, has sold “hundreds” of hats that say Cut the carp.
Much like noise pollution from John Wayne Airport, Asian carp hardly matches the current tabloidlike nature of national politics. But as Tanner put it, “That’s a proper role for a legislator, in a campaign. You’re not running against Trump; you’re running for the Senate.”
A handful of incumbents in both chambers and parties have also pitched themselves as moderates in the 2018 midterm cycle. Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, and Manchin come to mind, as well as Republican Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick, Will Hurd, and Dave Joyce. But Rouda and Bredesen are not moderate incumbents desperately trying to stay afloat; they’re first-time candidates for Congress. Both men decided that even in this hyper-partisan moment, the moderate playbook was worth the gamble.
Yet Rouda and Bredesen are something like unicorns in the 2018 cycle. There are so few other moderate first-time candidates out there, underscoring just how hard it is to persuade a middle-of-the-road-minded person to run for elected office.
“It’s just gotten so contentious,” former Illinois Republican Representative Bob Dold, a moderate who lost his seat in 2016, told me. “You’re getting millions of dollars being spent against you on negative ads, and most of them aren’t even true. A lot of people will just say, ‘No, thank you,’ to that.”
The Democratic strategist Peter Cari told me that both parties are struggling to convince would-be moderate candidates of a viable path to victory. “When the right thinks anyone who votes for compromise is a sellout, and Democrats think the same thing, it makes it tough to want to run,” he said. “Everyone’s scared to death, and with reason.”
The arc of the moderate campaign is long and bends toward failure. Almost everyone I interviewed for this article said that gerrymandering was the chief culprit. Every 10 years, after the federal census, both parties exploit the ability to redraw districts and virtually guarantee their side’s dominance for the decade to come. It’s the reason, for example, a Republican stronghold like Maryland’s Sixth District was able to turn bright blue in 2011 with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
The result, as Dold explained to me, is a system in which “the primary is the election.” When a party reigns in a district without question, the real contest takes place during the primary. Democrats will try to outrun one another from the ideological left; Republicans attempt to pitch themselves as the field’s most conservative choice. Candidates in both parties often end up pandering to their base’s most extreme impulses, knowing that they won’t need to temper their message in the general election.
“I don’t think people realize or fully understand the corrosive effect that 50 years of gerrymandering has had on the system,” John Tanner said. “Gerrymandering has driven people who hold elected office into the red or blue world, where their only political jeopardy is in the primary. Not only is there no incentive to work across party lines; there’s actually a disincentive.”
Tanner is among the few lawmakers who have actively worked to regulate gerrymandering. “I had a bill each of my last four terms to change it,” he said. “But I couldn’t.” Meaningful change is unlikely anytime soon. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to decide on the Maryland gerrymander’s constitutionality, sending the case back to a lower court on procedural grounds.
“This is the miserable system we’re stuck in,” Tanner concluded.
Duking it out in a primary, enduring waves of attack ads—that’s just getting to Congress. The challenges of the campaign trail are trivial compared with what moderates like Rouda and Bredesen would likely face in Washington itself.
Two of the most notable pieces of legislation in the past eight years—the Affordable Care Act and tax reform—passed the Senate without a single yea from the minority party. Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was a partisan bloodbath.
And ideological divisions within parties have become almost as fraught as cross-party relationships. A standoff between the House’s Republican leadership and the conservative Freedom Caucus is the rule, not the exception, for any legislative battle―preventing, for example, any progress on immigration reform. And as I reported last month, a group of House Democrats began pushing a measure that would make it more difficult for Nancy Pelosi to become speaker if her party takes the House—only to withdraw their petition when, at a caucus meeting a few days later, Pelosi herself showed up to address it.
Current lawmakers I spoke with expressed frustration with the gridlock. It’s an easy thing to pay lip service to. But representatives such as Tom Reed, a moderate New York Republican who watched as colleague after colleague announced his or her retirement this year—and who considered jumping ship himself—said they’re taking steps to ensure that the 116th Congress is different from past sessions.
Reed is the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of centrist members that aims to achieve bipartisan consensus on major policies. Reed and his fellow co-chair, Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, formalized the 48-member coalition last year. The lawmakers are required to vote together on any bill that 75 percent of the caucus supports. Reed told me that when the group was developed informally in 2010, it had nearly 100 members. When he and Gottheimer introduced the consensus rule in 2017, the roster shrank by half.
Ahead of the midterm elections, 19 of the members have pledged not to vote for any speaker candidate who does not support a series of rules changes, such as forcing committees to send bills with more than 290 co-sponsors to the floor and making it easier for members to offer amendments to bills.
The proposed reforms are designed to shift power from the House majority leadership to more of the conference—and foster comity and cooperation in the process. “Unless leadership gives me the thumbs-up, I’m not allowed to get a bill to the floor. I’m not allowed to fail,” Reed said. “That frustration is shared widely.”
The Freedom Caucus blanched at a similar set of proposed changes in 2015, when Paul Ryan was up for the speaker post. Yet Reed said that he’s already succeeded in getting potential speaker candidates, including the ultraconservative Majority Whip Steve Scalise, to promise to support his group’s reforms this year. It’s a sign, perhaps, that the moderate caucus’s power could be growing. “I don’t want to be a bomb-thrower,” Reed told me. “I just want to be a member.”
The Senate is unlikely to consider similar changes—a smaller body means that legislators wield more power individually, and aren’t as hamstrung procedurally by leadership or a particular caucus. Yet whether senators are willing to break ranks is another question entirely; as Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle demonstrated, tribal fervor courses through the upper chamber as much as in the lower one.
Ultimately, November will be a test of whether moderate candidates still have a place in the American political system. If they do, this election will also test whether those candidates can stick to their centrist ideals. Will they strive to be a member, as Reed put it, or fall prey to the short-term promises of the bomb-throwers among them? The startling number of moderates who have chosen to retire in the past two years suggests that sticking to those ideals is too hard a task today. “The tragedy is that people who are being elected as slaves to one party or the other are just not able to govern,” Tanner said. “They can either resist or shove their agenda down someone else’s throat.”
Still, Bob Dold is optimistic that moderate lawmakers can be effective in Congress. “When I ran, we focused on accomplishments, working together, and being one of the most independent, bipartisan members of Congress,” he said. He told me that he was optimistic, too, that voters would ultimately reward such efforts at the ballot box.
He then paused for a few beats, realizing that losing his reelection in 2016 reflected just the opposite.
“I guess you can look at all that and say, ‘Yeah, but where did that land you?’”