10 November 2008

New England Once Had Republicans

After the 2008 election there will be no Republicans in the House of Representatives from New England (from any of its twenty-two seats), and two of the three Republicans out of the twelve U.S. Senators from New England (Snowe and Collins in Maine) are the most moderate Republicans in Congress, while the third is no die hard conservative. It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, the Republican party was the leading political party in New England:

At their first presidential convention, in 1856, Republicans nominated John C. Fremont on a platform of abolishing slavery in the territories - a widely held view in the North. While Fremont lost, he carried 11 Northern states. Later, Abraham Lincoln captured the presidency by winning 18 Northern states.

By the late 1940s, Republicans held 21 of 28 of New England's seats in the House of Representatives. But the turning point came in 1964, when the Republicans nominated conservative Barry Goldwater for president, said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Known for being fiscally conservative but more socially liberal, Northeast moderates - dubbed the Rockefeller Republicans after the former New York governor - started to be eclipsed by the more socially conservative wing of the party. . . . "There is no longer, to speak of, a moderate voice within the party," Rose said. "It's a party that's becoming more narrow and there's really no sense of compromise within the party." . . .

[I]n New England, where Republicans historically have often favored fiscal responsibility, abortion rights, protection of personal liberties and strong environmental policies. . . .the problem worsened with the 1994 so-called "Republican Revolution," when midterm congressional elections added 54 Republican seats in the House.

"They lost their way and I think more and more New England people, especially those who were Republicans basically because of smaller government and less government intrusion into our lives, started to see their party led by people whose foremost issues were social issues, religious and values and morals, etc.," [Connecticut Republican leader] Cafero said. . . .

One bright spot for the GOP in New England has been their control of governorships. Republicans are governors in Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island. . . . "The only reason they've been able to survive is they've acted like Democrats," Rose said. "They too, I think are going to become endangered species."

Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University . . . . said there is now an opportunity for an independent third party that takes populist stands to develop in New England and envelop moderate Republicans. . . . "There is no place in the GOP now for the moderates and they need to find a home," Whalen said. "The brand is dead in New England."

New England is, at the moment, in a dominant party phase similar to that of the Democratic party in the South prior to the civil rights movement. It is an environment fertile for the emergence of a new or reimagined political party, perhaps even a regional one.

The Democratic party is more pro-business, more free market oriented, and more socially liberal than it was in the days when New Englanders with those ideologies voted Republican. The real question now, in New England and nationally, is which pieces of the old Republican party remain most uncomfortable with the Democratic party and most able to find common cause with each other.

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