When Andrew Roraback appeared on WNPR’s “Where We Live” earlier this week, listeners got to hear him engage in a time-honored tradition for Connecticut Republicans who hope to have a shot at actually winning an election: backing away from the national party.
It’s yet another reminder of how badly the two-party system is serving us.
Believe it or not, Connecticut used to be one of America’s Republican heartlands. Republican roots were planted deep inside Yankee culture and values, stretching back to the Gilded Age and the Civil War era. But ever since the 1960s, Connecticut has been becoming less and less Republican as the party’s center of gravity has shifted away from the once-solid northeast to the south and west. Republicans like Raymond Baldwin, John Davis Lodge, and even Prescott Bush would be hard-pressed to find many like themselves in positions of power in today’s Republican Party. Connecticut conservatism is different, far more old-school patrician than fiery moralist or haughty Ayn Rand acolyte.
Those Republicans who have been successful in Connecticut have done it largely in spite of — rather than because of — the national party and the mainstream conservative movement. Lowell Weicker, who was Connecticut’s last Republican U.S. Senator, infuriated conservatives both nationally and here at home. Weicker so alienated the conservative movement that they tried to take him out via primary challenge in 1982. And when that didn’t work it was William F. Buckley who helped Joe Lieberman defeat Weicker in 1988. Former Rep. Christopher Shays was long despised by other Republicans for being too moderate for their tastes, and he felt it this year when he tried to challenge Linda McMahon. Former Gov. Jodi Rell often found herself at odds with her own party in the legislature. After she proposed big tax increases to pay for an education overhaul early in her second term, incensed Republican stalwarts from the Wall Street Journal to the local conservative blogosphere were up in arms.
Roraback fits this mold — another of what GOP Chairman Gerald Labriola, speaking to the News-Times, called “a long tradition of Yankee Republicans with an independent streak.” Roraback called himself a “Roraback Republican” and blasted both parties for “going away from the center” on “Where We Live” this week. This follows a nasty primary where his opponents tried to paint him as a liberal RINO; his right wing is still restless. Moderates like Roraback are very hard to find in today’s Republican Party, which is arguably the more exclusionary and extremist of the two major parties. There are very few of Labriola’s “Yankee Republicans” left — with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, depending on what he believes this week. Roraback, if elected, would be pretty much on his own.
I was talking on Twitter with some politically-minded folks the other day, and someone suggested that Connecticut Republicans ought to just ditch the national party and go it alone. The restrictions of the two party system, which guarantee both national money and a ready-made party base, among other things, makes this practically impossible. Still, imagine what a New England-flavored center-right opposition could do if it wasn’t burdened with the baggage of the national party. This state is now full of places Republicans can’t win because of history and the antics of the national party, rather than because of their ideas or the strength of their candidates.
So what to do? Republicans running for Congress in Connecticut will likely keep doing this dance where they both embrace and disavow the national GOP for as long as it’s marginally effective, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue: party politics is becoming strongly regional again, like it was a century-and-a-half ago. Ask a Democrat in West Virginia or Utah, and they’ll sigh and give you a version of the same story.
It’s almost tempting to urge Connecticut Republicans to make a fresh start as a new party, but that would just speed the forces of separation and disintegration that are dividing us, northeast from south, Midwest from mountains, coasts from interior. What I wish for is something that speaks to every one of us, that reminds us that there’s a country existing beyond party and region and class and religion. Unless and until a political shift helps us find our common ground again, I doubt I’ll see it. For now, moderates will try to thread the needle, and with every one of them who vanishes, we lose a little more of the glue that holds us together.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.