GOP's Woes Imperil Even the Centrists

Rep. Charles Bass, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire, is losing ground to his Democratic challenger over big-picture issues such as the Iraq war and which party controls Congress.
Rep. Charles Bass, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire, is losing ground to his Democratic challenger over big-picture issues such as the Iraq war and which party controls Congress. "Change is good," said one of his constituents. (By Craig Sandler -- Assocated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

CONCORD, N.H. -- Moderate Republicans such as Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.) are already an endangered species in Congress. The gathering political storm could push them much closer to extinction.

In 2004, Bass won reelection by 20 percentage points, beating Paul Hodes, a Democratic lawyer and guitarist who dubbed his long-shot campaign the "Rock and Roll Back the Deficit Tour." This year, it's a different story. A University of New Hampshire survey released Thursday showed Hodes with a lead of 45 percent to 37 percent, with 14 percent undecided; the poll had a five-percentage-point margin of error.

Touring a start-up technology firm here, the six-term Republican looked anxious and a little weary. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had just increased its investment in New Hampshire's 2nd District to $1.1 million and had bought ad time in the pricey Boston media market.

"I am the same candidate I was two years ago, four years ago, six years ago," Bass told business leaders who had gathered at the plant. "I know my constituents, and they know me." But, Bass conceded, it is "a terrible year to be running for reelection."

Democrats have targeted three types of GOP House districts in their takeover bid: open seats being vacated by incumbents, districts represented by ethically challenged lawmakers and districts where voters supported Democratic presidential tickets in 2004 and 2000 by 48 percent or higher.

The Bass seat falls in the last category, along with those in 12 other districts. Most of the races remain too close to call. These districts are tough for Democrats to crack because the Republican incumbents tend to be savvy politicians, more alert to potential threats. There are 188 voting wards in Bass's district, and the congressman has campaign chairmen in all of them.

These Republicans also tend to be centrists, and if they lose in droves next week, the House GOP conference will become even more conservative than it has been in recent years. That has wide-ranging implications, no matter which party wins the majority.

Moderate Republican House members such as Bass, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Jim Gerlach and Michael G. Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania often side with Democrats on environmental, social and budget issues. On the rare occasion when a vote fails in the House, they are usually the culprits. Ditto for internal dissent. After then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was indicted on campaign finance charges in Texas, Bass helped launch a petition drive to replace the powerful House majority leader. DeLay gave up his post a few days afterward and later resigned from Congress.

"People genuinely like Charlie," said Bob Odell, a moderate Republican state senator. "It's hard to believe it's as close as it is."

In past elections, Democratic challengers have found moderate Republicans tough to unseat because there is little friction between them. Bass, who represents a scenic district along the Vermont border, often breaks with his party over the environment. He is pro-choice on abortion, supports embryonic stem cell research and voted against a ban on same-sex marriage.

But this year, voters are not as focused on specific issues. "They are looking at the bigger picture," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the DCCC chairman.

That bigger picture is which party controls Congress. "Change is good," said Mike Gagne, who owns a gift shop in downtown Tilton. Michelle Bladecki, a receptionist at a nearby hair salon, said she is leaning toward Hodes because he is not a career politician. "He sounded the least unrealistic," she said.

Hodes no longer plays guitar at campaign events, and he makes a point not to smile in his ads so that people take him seriously. He believes that voters want Congress to address issues they care about and show more backbone. One of his slogans: A spine is a terrible thing to waste.

For Hodes and many other Democrats, the Iraq war is a way not only to woo back members of their party, but also to reach independents and Republicans. In other words, it is a way to eat into moderate Republicans' margins, on all fronts. The war issue "transcends the populist message of Democrats and can be framed in a way to bring people together," Hodes said.

He has offered an eight-point plan for Iraq that calls for withdrawing National Guard and reserve troops immediately. Bass supports keeping troops in place until, according to his Web site, "Iraq's security forces are fully capable of supporting their newly established democratic institutions."

Republicans are also pouring resources into the district and are starting to worry about the neighboring 1st District, where two-term Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) holds a narrow lead over his antiwar challenger, Carol Shea-Porter (D). The first national party official arrived in Bass's district three weeks ago. Volunteers are operating phone banks in five locations, logging 10,000 calls a day.

Bass, who was first elected to the state legislature in 1982, has a deeply rooted political organization that he hopes will give him a vital edge on Election Day.

But when he took the podium at the Newport Rotary Club this week, he sounded a bit wistful. Elections "are always different from one another," he said. "They're always exciting." He warned the crowd that House Democrats "want all the tax cuts rolled back" and are plotting an "enormous expansion of health care."

Of course, Bass has supported his share of Democratic initiatives over the years. "There are votes I cast, there wouldn't be a single person in this room who would agree with every one of them," he said. "I want to thank you for the last 12 years, and I respectfully ask for your vote."


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