Toe the line. The new chair of the Republican National Committee, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, is an African-American whose choice was intended to prevent that. But he found himself in hot water with the Senate centrists when he threatened to fund primary challengers against them if they didn't toe the line on key votes. "Strange," says Collins. "Horrendous," says Snowe. "I have been in Congress for 30 years, and there was always sort of an understanding that, obviously, senators and members of the House are going to depart from the norm of the Republican Party" on some votes. "You're reflecting the views of your constituents," she says.
Look across America, and you'll understand their alarm. The GOP's advantage in party affiliation among voters peaked in 2003. One recent poll found that 53 percent of Americans are Democratic or Democratic leaners; only 35 percent fell in the Republican camp. Other polls have found that by a big margin, people think congressional Democrats care more about average people than do their GOP counterparts. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, says what's most disturbing to Republicans is that Obama carried 66 percent of voters under 30. That's a bad omen for the GOP.
If you ask Americans where they reside on the ideological spectrum, most point to the center. In last fall's presidential exit polls, 44 percent described themselves as "moderate," compared with 34 percent who said "conservative" and 22 percent who answered "liberal."
But while most people are centrists, for years the national parties have come under the grip of people on the extreme edges. Specter, in leaving the GOP, identified two contests to make that point. One was the defeat of Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in a 2006 primary contest against liberal challenger Ned Lamont; Lieberman prevailed in the general election as an independent. The other race was Specter's challenge from the right by former House member Pat Toomey, who nearly toppled him in a 2004 primary. Toomey, former president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, has launched another campaign to oust Specter in 2010.
Collins is warily eyeing the Senate Democratic caucus, where centrists are coalescing to flex their muscle. Sixteen lawmakers, led by Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have formed a moderate working group. Collins says its members are Democrats who have carried Republican-leaning states. "If we don't run moderate Republicans who fit these states," she cautions, "we're going to end up with conservative or moderate Democrats representing them.
Evolution. Over time, parties evolve, expand, and contract, some to the point of extinction. Scholars say the demise of moderate Republicans in the Senate has been occurring since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which triggered defections among Southern Democrats. "You no longer had a Democratic Party in Congress that was roughly one-half Southern conservative and one-half Northern liberal," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But with many watching as the South morphed from Democratic to competitive to Republican, less attention was paid to the Republicans dropping off in the Northeast and the West Coast.
Though regions have shifted over time, ideological views are hardening. Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers, looks not only at elected GOP officials but also at their growing "supporting casts" in the world of talk radio, think tanks, opinion journals, and blogs. "Back in the 1940s, it was hard to identify anything like a Republican think tank," he says.
Snowe and Collins, the highest-profile GOP moderates left, insist Obama can't always count on their vote. Neither approved the Democratic budget outline, for example, and both oppose a pro-union measure known as "card check." And each has turned aside pressure by Democrats to leave the GOP. Snowe says there have been several major overtures over the years. "A lot of Democrats will kid me. They'll say, 'Oh, Olympia, you really should be a Democrat.' I tell them I couldn't do it. This is my identity."