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Tom Davis and the 'Dying Breed' of Moderates

Last September, when centrist Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) announced his plans to retire, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was asked why so many of his fellow moderate Republicans seemed to be heading for the exits.

"I think some of them are just tired," Davis told Roll Call, adding that the coming months would be a "test of leadership" to see whether the GOP could convince the remaining centrists to stick around.

Well, Davis isn't. After having foregone a Senate race, the Fairfax lawmaker is announcing today that he won't be running for re-election after 14 years in the House.

"We're just very tired," Davis said today of himself and his wife. "We're going to kick back and have some weekends."

Davis is probably best-known among House Republicans for his two successful terms running the party's campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and for his Rain Man-like knowledge of seemingly every state and district in the country.

As one senior Republican lawmaker lamented Tuesday, "We're losing our encyclopedia."

But the House GOP is also losing something else - a relatively rare moderate success story. Davis was able to serve in leadership with distinction and ascend to a committee chairmanship, all the while holding an increasingly marginal suburban district with relative ease.

When Ramstad announced his retirement in September, he said he was part of a "dying breed of Republican moderates," and things have gotten a lot worse since then. Davis is now the 21st House Republican to announce his retirement this cycle (not counting House members who are leaving to run for other office), and moderates make up a full 48 percent of that list.

Using membership in the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership as a guide, Davis is the 10th self-identified GOP moderate to call it quits, following Reps. David Hobson (Ohio), Ray LaHood (Ill.), Jim McCrery (La.), Deborah Pryce (Ohio), Ramstad, Ralph Regula (Ohio), Jim Saxton (N.J.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.) and Jerry Weller (Ill.). (An 11th RMSP member, New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, is running for Senate.)

To put that 48 percent number in perspective, RMSP members make up only about 20 percent of the House Republican Conference.

And this isn't the first cycle to decimate the moderate Republican ranks. In 2006, the GOP was unable to protect two New Hampshire centrists -- Jeb Bradley and Charles Bass (now the RMSP's president) -- as well as Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), and Gil Gutknecht (Minn.). Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.) chose to retire.

What's behind the exodus of centrists? Part of it can be explained by the pressures of constant campaigning. Most moderate Republicans reside in swing districts, so they have to raise money constantly and fight to stay alive every two years. The decennial redistricting process often results in the dismemberment of these kinds of districts, so some centrists could find themselves running in unfamiliar territory in 2012. And they regularly encounter primary challenges from conservatives, sometimes backed by well-funded groups like the Club for Growth.

But disillusionment in the moderate GOP ranks goes beyond their re-election worries. Since the party took power in 1994, the House Republican Conference has been dominated by conservatives. Many centrists believe there is a glass ceiling for them within the party, and that their leaders too often push them into taking tough votes.

In Davis' case, there was little chance of him ascending to another leadership post after he ran the NRCC, even if he had wanted to, because many conservatives were wary of his moderate or liberal stands on social issues. And Davis had to fight to be named chairman in 2003 of what was then known as the Government Reform Committee, because some conservatives -- led by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his allies -- believed Davis was too pro-union to run the panel that oversees the federal workforce.

In Virginia, Davis decided not to run for the seat of retiring Sen. John Warner (R) last October when state Republicans chose to pick their nominee with a convention rather than a primary. Because conventions attract the most committed party activists, they naturally favor conservatives over moderates.

Now Davis' House seat could be in jeopardy, as the Northern Virginia suburbs have been trending to the left and several Democratic candidates, including Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly, appear poised to jump in the race.

With his party in the minority, little room for advancement in the House, his seat getting tougher and the deck stacked against him for a Senate run, there was little reason for Davis to stick around for an 8th term. In the end, like his fellow retiring centrists, he was just tired.

By Ben Pershing  |  January 30, 2008; 1:20 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , GOP Leaders  
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