PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The classic New England Republican - fiscally conservative, socially liberal - is nearly extinct following a long and quiet decline that began more then a decade ago when the GOP nationally began its move to the right.
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It is a political breed generations old.
The Democratic tidal wave in Tuesday's elections claimed several victims in seats that had long been in Republican hands. Scholars say the losses may be the death knell for the traditional "rock-ribbed" New England Republican.
Perhaps the best example is Sen. Lincoln Chafee, whose family has represented Rhode Island in the Senate for 30 years.
Both of New Hampshire's seats in Congress switched parties. Six-term Rep. Charles Bass, also part of a political family whose father held the same seat in Congress and whose grandfather was a governor, lost to a Democrat, as did Rep. Jeb Bradley, who served 12 years in the state legislature before winning election to Congress in 2002.
Twelve-term Rep. Nancy Johnson, Connecticut's longest-serving congresswoman, lost by 12 percentage points to a Democrat. Another Connecticut moderate, Rep. Rob Simmons, is fighting for his political life. With a recount under way, Simmons trailed Democrat Joe Courtney by fewer than 200 votes.
Yankee Republicans like Chafee's father, the late Sen. John Chafee, former Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, or even President Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, once were the base of the party. Not anymore.
Endangered northeastern Republican
The defeat of Chafee, arguably the most liberal GOP senator, and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, who at times aligned himself with GOP moderates, leaves Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania as perhaps the only reliably centrist Republicans in the Senate.
"It's truly regrettable," Snowe said. "Losing individuals like Linc Chafee and Mike DeWine, who were moderate consensus builders in the U.S. Senate, is a serious reversal."
John Kenneth White, a politics professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, said the GOP is now "the party of Dixie."
"George W. Bush has taken the party further and further south," he said. "This has really severed off the Yankee Republican New England establishment."
These Republicans embraced fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship and protection of personal liberties, including support of abortion rights. Chafee did not support the Iraq war, while Bradley, Bass and Johnson did. But they all called themselves environmentalists, a position that dates to the conservationism of Republican Teddy Roosevelt. They also support embryonic stem cell research.
Moderate voice gone
Those are popular positions in a region where voters subscribe to moderation and pragmatism and want to keep the government out of their bedrooms. But that puts them at the opposite end of the party's political spectrum. The GOP has moved right since 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress.
"That moderating voice in the party is going, resulting in a more conservative and more right-wing Republican Party," said Gary Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Some of the region's Republicans did survive Tuesday, including Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, who won a third two-year term, and Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, who was re-elected to a second four-year term.
In Connecticut, Rep. Chris Shays narrowly was re-elected, and Snowe won handily in Maine.
But with the GOP's effort to appeal to its base in the South, it has moved away from building the party in New England, and that could spell more trouble down the road.
Survival means attention
"Even though people like Chris Shays survived this time, what happens when he leaves the scene?" asked White. "When these folks leave the scene, they tend to get replaced by Democrats."
Even with the gloomy predictions, Tuesday's election might not be all bad for New England Republicans and could even mean new prominence for moderates such as Snowe and Collins, said Randall Miller, a professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
In a sharply divided Senate, Miller said, "those that survive likely will be the ones that will be courted most by the Democrats."
The two Maine senators have a track record of working across party lines, sometimes with a varying cast of senators on an issue-by-issue basis. They were among seven Republicans who teamed up with seven Democrats to cobble a compromise that averted a bruising battle over filibusters of judicial nominations.
It's also a chance to rebuild the party from the ground up, Miller said.
That sentiment was echoed by Chafee, who has indicated since his loss that he is considering leaving the Republican Party.
"I hope they can guide the party back to the middle," Chafee said last week of the remaining moderate GOP senators. "At our peril we don't."
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