Moderate Candidates In Trouble

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

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.

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.

"Turnout in their base is a critical factor, and that pushes them more to the left and the right," says Professor Peters.

Problems with TV

Finally, the widespread use of television as a campaign medium often works against moderates because it tends to highlight partisan differences while overshadowing nuanced viewpoints.

Fox, for example, dislikes TV ads. Fresh from a session with some 25 senior citizens in a convalescence home, he says he prefers public meetings where he says voters "get to see the real me. It doesn't come through in five-second sound bites."

As Fox crisscrosses his district, from the affluent Main Line corridor of the old-moneyed and professionals to more modest areas such as Norristown, he illustrates the challenges facing moderate candidates with politically diverse - and unpredictable - constituencies.

"This is what we call 'squishy' Republican," Fox says, palming the wheel of his Chevrolet Concord as he cruises through Montgomery County. Some 57 percent of the voting population here is GOP. "It's not what you want," he says. "We like the firm kind."

Yet by trying hard to please everyone - from the more liberal white-collar professionals east of Highway 202 to the suburban and rural constituents in the west - Fox has unwittingly turned the "squishy" label on himself.

Seeking a middle way on contentious issues such as abortion and gun control, Fox has antagonized groups ranging from pro-choice advocates to the National Rifle Association while offering ammunition to critics who call him wishy-washy.

"People perceive Fox as voting to make everyone happy rather than having a rock-solid political compass," says Amy Walter, who follows House races for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

A blunter assessment comes from Fox's two-time opponent, Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph Hoeffel. He calls Fox "the voice of nothing."

Moderate or wishy-washy?

Fox defends his record, explaining that his apparent wavering in fact represents an effort to pass the best legislation for his constituents - as when he voted against his own labor bill after a better plan was introduced.

Moreover, Fox, who calls himself "one of the most independent Republicans in Congress," says he works to promote moderation among the party's conservatives. He is active in the Tuesday Lunch Bunch, a group of about 30 moderate-leaning House GOP members who informally lobby House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia.

"I think the ideologues can't see the mainstream of thought in mid-America. I'm happy to be a populist who can see both sides," says Fox. He acknowledges, though, his influence is limited.

For example, Fox differed sharply with the GOP leadership on one recent, crucial vote - the resolution for an impeachment inquiry on President Clinton. The GOP should have shown bipartisanship by backing the Democrats' proposal for a limited impeachment inquiry, he says.

"It would have been a coup; it would have been perfect," Fox says with exasperation. "We shot ourselves in the foot." In the end, though, Fox kept ranks and voted with the Republican majority.

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