The New York Times reported yesterday on the electoral challenges facing Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire this year, given the factors in the 2016 race, some of which the incumbent senator can't control. The headline read, "Tough Re-election for G.O.P. Moderate Is Getting Tougher."
She may not always telegraph it, but Ms. Ayotte, a freshman senator, is locked in a herculean battle with the state's popular Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan. As one of five Senate Republicans running for re-election in states that supported President Obama in both 2008 and 2012, Ms. Ayotte is seen as particularly vulnerable this November. [...]Six years ago, Ms. Ayotte was part of a Republican wave.... For Ms. Ayotte and other Republicans from that class, 2016 was always going to be a difficult year to run for re-election because more Democrats vote in presidential years. But with the possibility that Donald J. Trump, the most divisive Republican presidential candidate in a generation, will be at the top of the ticket, the party's task may be all the more arduous.
The broader assessment seems entirely right: the GOP incumbent faces a strong Democratic challenger in a year in which Republicans in competitive states are likely to struggle. Walking the electoral tightrope will pose challenges.
But it's the wording of the headline that jumped out at me: since when is Kelly Ayotte a "moderate"?
It's challenging because, by some measures, Republican moderates no longer exist in any meaningful sense. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver published an analysis last fall that noted, as a quantifiable matter, "The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now."
As GOP politics have become increasingly radicalized, what passes for Republican moderation has no real connection to anything resembling mainstream American centrism. Indeed, by most measures, Kelly Ayotte may not have a reputation as a wild-eyed partisan bomb-thrower, but her actual record is one of a far-right conservative.
Ayotte co-sponsored Ted Cruz's bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example, without a replacement plan for the millions who'd lose their coverage. She filibustered a bipartisan bill to expand background checks before gun purchases. She's voted, several times, to defund Planned Parenthood*. She joined the far-right in rejecting emergency disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims.
The list goes on. Ayotte rejected a clean debt-ceiling increase needed to prevent national default. She voted for Paul Ryan's right-wing budget plan. She rejected a proposed increase of the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Though she later regretted it, Ayotte even went along with her party's government-shutdown scheme in 2013.
According to the most recent available information on the group's website, the Club for Growth gives Ayotte a lifetime rating of 81% -- and as of a few years ago, it was even higher. It's partly why she's been a featured guest at far-right gatherings such as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Indeed, as I type, Ayotte has joined her party's unprecedented Supreme Court blockade, rejecting a qualified nominee for reasons she and her party are still struggling to explain -- a move even some of her GOP colleagues consider indefensible.
Sure, there are exceptions -- Ayotte voted, for example, for the Gang of Eight's immigration reform package -- and the New Hampshire senator is hardly the most far-right member in the chamber, but the fact remains that there's simply nothing about her record that says "moderate."
My point is not to pick on the New York Times for the misplaced ideological label. Rather, what I think the Ayotte example offers is a reminder that the political world needs to rethink these assessments altogether, recognizing that actual Republican moderates are an endangered species, and being slightly less radical than extremists does not a moderate make.
When major news organizations start to think anyone to the left of Tom Cotton has credibility as a centrist, we lose sight of what matters: the Republican Party's shift to the far-right has changed the nature of American politics in fundamental ways. Calling actual conservatives "moderates" only exacerbates the problem.
* Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece.