House GOP Exits Will Strengthen Right in '08

With the number of House Republicans retiring at 17 and counting — compared to four exits on the Democratic side — there are few GOP prognosticators who dare to say that their party has any chance of regaining the majority it held in the House from 1994-to-2006.  Simply put, the mathematics just aren’t there. 

But one little-noticed fact may have a major impact on Republican ranks in the House after ’08, no matter what their numbers:  that with so many of the seventeen including prominent moderate GOPers, odds are strong that the trend toward the terms “Republican” and “conservative” becoming mutually inclusive will continue after the next election.

As the moderate wing of the party has seen its prominent members — notably from the Northeast — be defeated or step down, the election of conservatives to the House on the Republican label grows.  As the “Sunbelt” (South and the West) dominates the ranks of Republican U.S. Representatives, there is but one Republican lawmaker left from New England:  liberal GOPer Christopher Shays (R.-Conn.).  In addition, as more moderate GOPers vacate safe or Republican-leaning districts, the nomination process is increasingly yielding a successor who is conservative.  A case in point is Pennsylvania’s 3rd District, which for years was considered winnable by a moderate GOPer only; but after Reps. Marc Lincoln Marks (1978-82) and then Tom Ridge (1982-94), who later served as governor of Pennsylvania and secretary of Homeland Securit, the district was won (and is now held) by conservative Phil English, pro-life and a key point man on the House Ways and Means Committee in the fight to scrap the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).

When Rep. Doug Bereuter (R.-Neb), who had long clashed with conservatives, left his Lincoln-based 1st District in 2004, he was succeeded by conservative Jeff Fortenberry, whom the Almanac of American Politics describes as “more conservative than Bereuter.”  Tom Osborne, legendary University of Nebraska football coach, was a decided non-conservative on issues ranging from campaign finance restrictions to gun control to in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants when he represented Nebraska’s 3rd District in the House from 2000-06.  He was succeeded by State Sen. Adrian Smith, a movement conservative backed by the conservative Club for Growth.  Smith is devoted , according to the Almanac, “to opposing abortion, protecting Nebraskan’s right to bear arms, fighting tax increases, and blocking efforts to expand casino gambling.”

As one HUMAN EVENTS subscriber characterize the trend in open GOP-held House seats, “We’re getting upgrades.”

Before Thanksgiving, Rep. Mike Ferguson (R.-N.J.) announced he was retiring.  The 37-year-old Ferguson, who is a vigorous pro-life advocate, is also in favor of raising the minimum wage and against oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.  Rated a lifetime 74% by the American Conservative Union, Ferguson has been a disappointment to many conservatives who had high hopes for him because of his abortion stand. 

Also in New Jersey, Rep. Jim Saxton (R.-N.J.) is leaving his 3rd District seat after 23 years.  Although Saxton has an excellent record on defense issues and is pro-life, he, like Ferguson, is anti-ANWR and pro-minimum wage hike (lifetime ACU rating: 71%). 

Conservatives do wonder that with the districts of Ferguson and Saxton securely in their hands for decades, might not a contested primary yield successors in the mold of 5th District Rep. Scott Garrett (lifetime ACU rating: 100%), now a leader in the fight to oppose reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind federal education program?

In Illinois, Rep. Ray LaHood (lifetime ACU rating: 74%), who has long been at dagger’s ends with Prairie State conservatives, is relinquishing the Peoria-based district he won in 1994, when old boss and mentor Bob Michel stepped down.  Area sources strongly believe that his likely Republican heir, 26-year-old State Rep. Aaron Schock, is decidedly more conservative than LaHood.  In the Chicago-area 14th District where former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill) is resigning and thus necessitating a special election early next year, the two leading Republican hopefuls—State Sen. Chris Lauzen and dairyman Jim Oberweiss—are almost always characterized as more conservative than Hastert.  The last Republican speaker was frequently criticized on the right for not being tough enough with his Democrat counterparts in Congress.

Are all the Republican retirees in the House “wets?”  Hardly,  Conservatives ranging from Terry Everett (Ala.) to Rick Renzi (Ariz.) to Tom Tancredo (Col.) to Chip Pickering (Miss.) are also call it quits.  But in virtually every case of a conservative GOP House Member calling it quits, an equally GOP conservative candidate is in the wings waiting to succeed him.  The leading contender to succeed Tancredo in Colorado 6th District is businessman William Armstrong, III, namesake-son of the revered former senator. 

It won’t happen, but the time may be sooner rather than later that an election cycle leaves the term “liberal Republican House Member” a phrase to describe an extinct species.