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GOP moderates aim for 2010 rebound

Party sees chances in N.H. and Conn.

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / November 2, 2009

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WASHINGTON - New England’s moderate Republicans, shoved out of power by two Democratic waves of anti-George W. Bush fervor, are scrambling to make a 2010 comeback, making early bids for congressional seats that GOP leaders say are critical to taking back majorities in the House and Senate.

In next year’s midterm elections, former representative Charlie Bass is exploring a run for his old New Hampshire seat, while his fellow Republican, former attorney general Kelly Ayotte, who was reappointed by a Democratic governor, is expected to draw bipartisan support for a Senate run, should she win the GOP primary in New Hampshire.

Rob Simmons, a former moderate Republican US representative from Connecticut, is seeking the nomination to challenge embattled Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat.

In other Northeast states, too, Republicans see opportunities: Representative Mike Castle, a Republican, is running for the Delaware Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden, and moderates are lining up for runs in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

“We aren’t going to win back the majority without fighting hard in the Northeast, and we intend to do it,’’ said Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who hopes to pick up a half-dozen or more seats in the region.

Since Republicans believe their losses in the region were largely due to Bush’s unpopularity, they see a greater opportunity to reclaim the seats. But a pushback from rank-and-file conservatives in the party, who are recruiting their own candidates, combined with a damaged national GOP image, is making the effort an uphill battle.

Several contenders from the right flank of the party - including Jennifer Horn, a New Hampshire congressional candidate - are making challenges in the Northeast, upsetting the political dynamic in a part of the country where traditionally Republicans are centrist.

The trend reflects the ideological battle inside the national GOP, which has become increasingly based in the South and West and where well-organized, very vocal conservatives are demanding that the party move to the right.

The Republican establishment is eager to benefit from the energy of that camp, which includes those who staged antitax “tea parties’’ over the summer and loudly denounced the Democratic health care agenda at town hall meetings. But it is unclear whether the conservatives can win seats in New England and bordering states for the GOP.

With just three GOP senators - one of whom is retiring - and not a single Republican in the House, New England has increasingly become a mass of political blue, sending Democrats to Washington who are supporters of President Obama’s agenda.

But in next year’s congressional election, Republicans believe they can regain ground in districts that have historically prided themselves on their Yankee independence and self-sufficiency. In the Granite State, GOP candidates could well win back both congressional seats and the open Senate seat, said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Sessions, who is in charge of electing more Republicans to the House, acknowledged that the party cannot expand its numbers without being more tolerant of its moderates - even if those members interfere with the national GOP agenda.

Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican of Maine, for example, became the sole member of her party to vote for health care overhaul in a committee vote and could be pivotal to passage of a measure that would mark a huge political victory for Obama.

“If our party is to be powerful and effective, it has to recognize that diversity is a fundamental American value. A Republican in New England is going to have a somewhat different view of things than a Republican in Arizona,’’ Simmons agreed.

Bass, who is assessing how much money and public support he can collect before deciding whether to run, said New England Republican moderates offer “sound, pragmatic, sensible leadership’’ different from the previous GOP regime and the current Democratic-led Congress.

“We seem to be an alternative for voters in a world where they don’t like either party right now,’’ Bass said.

However, conservatives are rejecting that approach, blaming the party’s losses on too-liberal Republicans who failed to uphold fiscal and socially conservative values.

“Voters are tired of being told they have to vote for ‘Democrat-light,’ ’’ said Horn, a candidate in the race Bass is considering. Moderates in 2006 and 2008 “were fired because they no longer stood for limited spending and limited government,’’ she said.

That dynamic is central to a special House election tomorrow in upstate New York, where moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava - until she dropped out Saturday - faced not only Democrat Bill Owens, but Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Hoffman has attracted support from the well-funded group Club for Growth, as well as such high-profile conservative Republicans as 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Before Scozzafava withdrew, some Republican officials feared that she and Hoffman would split GOP votes, and that the Democrat would win the reliably Republican seat.

“Did I say I was happy?’’ said Sessions when asked about the race. The GOP has no control over other parties, or independent groups such as the Club for Growth, and can’t do anything except support Scozzafava, Sessions said.

The Club for Growth, which spent more than $20 million supporting candidates in the 2008 races and expects to spend even more in the 2010 election, won’t apologize for helping genuinely conservative candidates, said Andy Roth, the group’s vice president for government affairs.

“The GOP will push aside principles if it suits their purposes,’’ Roth said. “The Club for Growth focuses on principles first.’’

Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to taint the GOP candidates in New England with the decidedly un-Yankee brand of Republicans’ disrupting town hall meetings and the image of Georgia GOP Representative Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!’’ at the president during a live nationally televised speech.

“The right-wing extremists have taken over the Republican party,’’ said Representative Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Every time a Republican tries to challenge that view, they get beaten down.’’

Even moderate Simmons has reached out to conservatives in his party, announcing recently that he now carries a tea bag in his pocket in honor of the antitax “tea party’’ GOP activists.

Lincoln Chafee, a former moderate GOP senator now running as an independent for governor of Rhode Island, said his former party has moved so far to the right that he doesn’t see any room in it for New England moderates.

“If you ask me, I’d recommend they run as independents,’’ he said.