Blue State Blues: From New Jersey to the Chicago 'Burbs

Chris Christie’s re-election as governor of New Jersey has rallied the hopes of the GOP establishment. Not only did he carry a “blue state” by a wide margin, but Christie also won among Hispanic voters (even if he lost to Hillary Clinton in a theoretical matchup in exit polls). Though Christie called himself a “conservative” on Election Day, he is centrist on many issues, and his re-election is fueling hopes of a moderate comeback.

But can moderate Republicans really win in tough blue state contests? And if so, how? 

Republican pollster Bill McIntuff drew attention recently when he noted that in 1982, 344 members of the House (out of 435) were moderates, according to their voting records. By 2012, there were only 11. The main culprit is gerrymandering to protect incumbents--or, in Illinois, to take out political opponents, especially after 2010.

The voters of the 10th district of Illinois prefer moderate Republicans. For decades, that is what they enjoyed: John Porter and Mark Kirk, men of patient demeanor and style, favorable to the executives and professionals that inhabit Chicago’s far northern suburbs. 

Bob Dold fit the profile: a small business owner and family man, a “fiscal conservative, social moderate, and foreign policy hawk,” in his words.

Dold carried the 10th during the Tea Party wave election of 2010--but not as a Tea Party candidate. His Democrat opponent, repeat candidate Dan Seals, tried to tie Dold to the Tea Party and was rebuked by the local media for his distortions. Strategists brought in by national Democrats and coached by veteran radical Robert Creamer ran a nasty campaign and predicted victory--not just for Seals but for the party as a whole.

They lost. So, in classic Chicago fashion, they redrew the 10th district to make it nearly impossible for Dold to win re-election. They moved old-money Kenilworth--the heart of the local GOP establishment, and Dold’s home town--into Jan Schakowsky’s 9th district (where she had beaten yours truly by a very comfortable margin). And they shifted Democrat-heavy Waukegan, with a large minority population, into the 10th.

Even in a D+8 district, Dold nearly won, coming within less than 1% of victory. He was defeated by Brad Schneider, a party hack who had grossly exaggerated his business record. 

Schneider benefited from having President Barack Obama on the ticket--and from the Democrats’ “war on women” theme, which he deployed against Dold, even though Dold led efforts in the House to preserve funding for Planned Parenthood.

Instead of a moderate of either party, the voters of the newly redrawn 10th district are now represented by a partisan empty suit, stuffed whatever Nancy Pelosi sees fit. Schneider has sponsored one bill in his first year--a dull, meaningless “sense of the House” resolution on corporate taxes. His most notable achievement was withdrawing a bill that would have “studied” new sanctions on Iran, after his constituents objected.

Schneider’s soft approach to Iran is a big error for a representative from one of the most pro-Israel districts in the country (even after the remap), home to Chicago’s Jewish philanthropic elite. Kirk set the standard by leading House efforts to pressure Iran, and Dold followed in his footsteps. Schneider, in contrast, has supported the far-left J Street, which is lobbying against new sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.

So Schneider is vulnerable. And Dold is running for the seat again. But he is running in a district whose political profile is roughly that of Christie’s New Jersey (D+6). I caught up with him this week to ask how a moderate Republican wins in a highly partisan time. 

“My pitch to Democrats is: in a D+8 district, are you more likely to get someone who reaches across the aisle if you elect a Republican, or a Democrat?” he says. 

He points to his record, including sponsoring a bill to enact the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles budget reforms, and co-sponsoring an immigration reform bill, the Startup Act 2.0., that focused on bringing in immigrants with advanced degrees and entrepreneurial skills.

Would he vote for the Senate’s “comprehensive” immigration bill? No, he says: “We have to stop passing these omnibus-type bills.” But he would encourage the House to bring up individual proposals. 

I note that he supported a controversial Sandy relief bill, over which Christie picked a fight with fellow Republicans. Do GOP moderates need to attack their unpopular party in order to win votes in Democrat-majority districts?

“I don’t believe we need to attack anybody,” Dold says. “I think moderates need to be advocates for their constituents in their districts.” 

Advocating, versus attacking.

At the heart of Christie’s appeal is the idea that he is fighting for the voters. His barbs irritate friends as well as foes, but at his best, he is an advocate. 

In a time when politics is an endless fight, that may be the key in blue states--and not just for moderates.


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