By Joe Kavesh
June 1, 2013

With Montclair’s political attention focused on the 34th District State Senate Democratic primary between incumbent Nia Gill and challenger Mark Alexander – both Montclair residents – it was easy to miss that former two-term Gov. Christie Whitman came to town on May 28 to discuss the state of the Republican party, Gov. Chris Christie’s electoral prospects (both in New Jersey and nationally) and the chasm that exists between Democratic and Republican leaders.

Although Gov. Whitman left office only 12 years ago, most people forget that during her years in office, the Republican Party was the dominant political party in New Jersey. Republicans won large majorities in both houses of the state Legislature. Whitman was elected in 1993, and re-elected in 1997. More locally, a Republican was elected Essex County executive in 1994 and again in 1998.

Although many in her own party loathed her, Gov. Whitman was lauded on the national level as being a moderate, centrist leader (fiscally conservative, socially tolerant). Today, Gov. Whitman would find it difficult to win a Republican primary. So, too, might former Republican Gov. Tom Kean Sr.

This reflects the central problem currently facing the Republican Party.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Senate was chock full of moderate, independent Republicans. Many of those centrists were from the Northeast: John Heinz and Arlen Specter (Pa.), John Chafee (R.I.), Warren Rudman (N.H.), William Cohen (Maine), Lowell Weicker (Conn.) and William Roth (Del.).

Other notable moderate Republican senators of this generation included Pete Wilson (Calif.), Mark Hatfield (Ore.), Rudy Boschwitz (Minn.), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Howard Baker (Tenn.).

Currently, there are only three Republican senators from the Northeast, one of whom is a moderate: Maine’s Susan Collins. In recent years, many moderate Republicans have either left the party, such as Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Pennsylvania’s Specter, former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; been defeated in primaries by Tea Party opponents, such as Indiana’s Lugar and Delaware’s Michael Castle; or have walked away due to diminishing influence within the party, such as former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. There are very few moderate Republicans in today’s Senate.

The “party of Lincoln” and the “party of Theodore Roosevelt” risks becoming the “party of Rand Paul,” a party dominated by right-wing ideologues. One unfortunate consequence is that the Northeast increasingly has less and less influence within the Republican Party. A regionalized, southern-focused Republican Party benefits only a very small sector of the population.

As it relates to the current Gov. Christie, who, I predict, will win a comfortable re-election in New Jersey this fall, the question going forward as he mulls a presidential run in 2016 is: Will he be able to effectively strike a balance between governing as a moderate in New Jersey – a state that typically does not embrace arch-conservative views – while also appealing to “red meat” conservatives in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina? How, for example, will Gov. Christie deal with gay marriage and expanded background checks?

The Republican Party is at its best when it advocates for lower taxes (something that should resonate in Montclair), cutting wasteful spending, sensible “law and order” initiatives, and responsible foreign policy endeavors (such as the first Gulf War). In sum, limited government with enumerated powers.

Where the party alienates many – including all-important “middle” independent voters – is when it preaches about “God, guns and gays.”

This is not to suggest that conservatives should not have a major voice within the Republican Party, nor that the Democratic Party is without its own “extremists.” My classmate at Brown University, Bobby Jindal, now the governor of Louisiana and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, surmises that moderate Republicans “look down” at conservatives. There is some truth to this.

But just as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have constituencies, so, too, do the endangered moderates within the party.

Christie Whitman is a testament to this. Time will tell as to the current Gov. Christie.

Joe Kavesh, an attorney, is a commissioner on the Montclair Civil Rights Commission and a trustee of the Adult School of Montclair.