Two issues plague Democrats when it comes to congressmen representing swing districts: The moderates don’t get heard in Washington, and centrist districts are rapidly becoming extinct because of the way congressional lines are being drawn.
Main Street America’s ability to be represented fully is diminishing, according to U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
"I have a district which is pretty evenly divided politically, so I hear from a variety of voices with their concerns," the three-term Democrat said.
He follows those concerns when voting, he insisted, rather than following the party line.
That is not the case, he said, for colleagues in districts that are heavily Democrat or Republican: "When they attend town halls, they are likely to only hear concerns from like-minded people because of the partisan ways that districts are drawn."
Not all of Main Street is on one side or the other, said former congresswoman Kathy Dalhkemper, a Democrat who represented northwestern Pennsylvania until being defeated last year in the wave of moderate-Democrat losses to Republicans.
"The Democratic Party is not really the ‘big tent’ it claims to be," she said of the small space available to represent centrist districts.
Dalhkemper thinks most Americans are pretty centrist: "More people are swing voters than we realize. Take myself, for example. I don’t believe in everything that every Democrat stands for, and I am proud to say that I have voted for Republicans in the past."
Dalhkemper has not ruled out running for office again, but perhaps not immediately.
More than 50 moderate Democrats were in Congress before the 2010 midterm elections. That number is circling the drain at 22, with more disappearing each day.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California, one of the fiscally conservative "blue dog" Democrats, announced his intention to retire last week, citing a lack of politicians in the middle as one of his reasons.
He joins 12 other centrists who have said they would retire or seek another office.
Fellow blue dogs Mike Ross of Arkansas and Dan Boren of Oklahoma have said they won’t be coming back when their terms expire in January 2013.
A moderate Democrat such as Boren represents a district with a large number of white working-class, often Catholic traditional Democrats who outnumber registered Republicans by a wide margin, explained Eldon Eisenach, a Tulsa University political theorist.
"For many years, these districts produced Republican majorities for presidents but continued to vote for their Democratic incumbent congressman," Eisenach said.
Like moderates from border states and parts of the upper Midwest, they typically produce more pork for their districts than more urban or suburban liberal
Democrats, who often represent either minorities or affluent liberals.
A moderate Democrat is almost always against stringent gun control, is personally against abortion, is skeptical about extending affirmative action beyond anti-discrimination, supports a fairly aggressive foreign policy, wears patriotism on their sleeves, and actually sees periodic conflicts between regulation and job-creation.
"Only one of Oklahoma’s congressional districts can conceivably be won by a moderate Democrat but each year it gets harder," said Eisenach.
Guys such as Boren are not good-ole-boy party hacks; these moderate Democrats are superbly educated and morally serious.
Their profiles closely match Republicans recently elected to Congress, Eisenach said, "except for one thing: a large constituency and party that listen to them, and an ideological passion to seek major changes."
The bulk of moderate Democrats who have announced retirement strike him as deeply disappointed people who were unable to use their considerable talents in office.
David Wasserman, House analyst for the Cook Political Report, points to this statistic: "There are six conservative Southern Democratic House members remaining. After 2012, it’s possible none of them, who are threatened by redistricting, will be in office."
And the 19 Democrats who voted against Nancy Pelosi for the House Minority Leader position have very little incentive to stay; they’re a minority within a minority in the House, not to mention members of a minority party in their districts. "So they’re triply marginalized," said Wasserman.
The moderate Democrat is a disappearing breed, which is a problem for Democrats overall – because, in any given election year, those moderates could be the difference between being in the majority or the minority party.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]