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Moderate Candidates In Trouble

Low voter turnout may favor hard-liners, returning a more-partisan Congress.

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1998


During a hectic morning of campaigning, Rep. Jon Fox is dashing to his car when a stack of papers slips from his grasp. Voter pamphlets and name cards flutter to the asphalt like fall leaves.

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It's not the only funny episode of the day. With cell phone ringing, scheduler nagging, and papers flying, Representative Fox is the classic candidate on the run. But in an era when voting trends, party activists, and sound-bite electioneering favor hard-liners, Fox has special reason to feel harried: He is a moderate.

This year, Fox is struggling to gain a third term in the hotly contested 13th Congressional District near Philadelphia. In 1996, he squeaked out an 84-vote win.

"I call every one [of the 84 voters] every night to make sure they're still alive," he jokes.

Fox is not alone. Nationwide, moderates are finding it harder than more-partisan politicians to secure congressional seats. Both parties are focused on unseating weaker candidates in an effort to gain critical House seats - and moderates are especially vulnerable in low-turnout elections. As a result, these competitive races will not only play a major role in determining the balance of power in Congress, but will also chart the future of a vanishing middle ground.

Indeed, voting records indicate that the House of Representatives is increasingly polarized along party lines - often frustratingly more so than the electorate it represents, experts say.

"Voters look at the bickering and ask, 'Why can't these people get together?' " says Ronald Peters Jr., director of the Carl Albert Congressional Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. "There is a disconnect between the electorate and the Congress."

Growth of extremists

The rise of extremists and decline of moderates in Congress stems from several sources, experts say.

On one hand, historical trends in voting rights and redistricting starting in the 1960s have gradually created more politically homogeneous congressional districts that tend to vote solidly Republican or Democratic. "Homogeneity means polarization," says Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "You create a district that is overwhelmingly suburban and Republican, and it will elect someone who is conservative and extreme."

As a result, fewer moderates - conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans - are winning seats. The shift has been especially dramatic in the South. "Over the past 10 years or so they have killed off the [conservative] southern Democrat who used to be a good balance wheel," says Charles Bullock, an expert on Congress at the University of Georgia in Athens. The number of liberal Republicans in the Northeast has dwindled as well, Professor Bullock notes.

The so-called "purification" of congressional districts means fewer competitive races. This year, House incumbents face serious opposition in only 58 races, less than half the average of the past three elections. (The figure does not include the 33 open House seats.)

Moderates have also suffered from another trend: declining voter turnout. Only one-third of voters are expected to go to the polls on Nov. 3. The low turnout makes Democratic and Republican candidates more dependent upon party activists - people who are more likely to vote but also to favor candidates with radical views.