The Death of the Republican Establishment

With Senator Rob Portman’s retirement, the more genteel, northern wing of the GOP keeps shrinking.

Rob Portman’s decision this week to retire from the U.S. Senate sounds like the death throes of what we used to call the Republican Party’s “Eastern Establishment.”

Following Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, the Ohioan’s retirement leaves the entire Northeast with only one remaining GOP senator, Maine’s Susan Collins. It poses the possibility that by January 2023, she will be the lone Republican U.S. Senator in a region measured all the way westward to Indiana and southward to Virginia.

More than geography is involved. It’s hard to see how the GOP’s moderate or sane-conservative wing can survive without its regional base since the days of the Civil War. Without the Northeast and its influential suburbs, it’s hard to see reality-based Republicans again winning a presidential nomination. Sure, Portman was not one of the liberal Republicans who still inhabited the Senate when I worked in Congress in the 1980s. I’m thinking of moderates like Charles Percy of Illinois, “Mac” Mathias of Maryland, or Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. Portman is a conservative. But the former Office of Management and Budget Director and Congressman was civil, well-liked, and wanted to get things done.

With Portman leaving, we’re far from the way it once was. As recently as 1961, following John F. Kennedy’s narrow defeat of Vice President Richard Nixon, the GOP maintained a bastion of northeastern strength in the U.S. Senate. Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were represented by a GOP senator. In Vermont, New Hampshire, Maryland, and New York, both senators were Republican.

All this is gone, as soundly obliterated as the Democrats’ once “Solid South” or the Democratic presence in the Dakotas and Nebraska. In the former Confederate states, Georgia just sent two Democrats up to Washington, and Virginia is represented by two moderates.

This switching of partisan neighborhoods is especially important to Republican politics. The moderate GOP once held serious power in the media, including its own newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune. Today, the party is dominated by the commentariat on Fox and platforms further to the right.

The retirement of Portman and Toomey continues a long-term shift in U.S. politics from one pitched between a Republican Party based in the Northeast and Midwest and a Democratic Party relying on the South. That demarcation dates back to the Civil War, a conflict that divided the anti-slavery politics of the Grand Old Party against a Democratic Party fatally divided on the question.

Most vitally, it marks the demise of the Republican Party’s moderate wing based in the Northeast.  This faction championed presidential nominees Wendell Willkie in 1940, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

This demarcation began to fall in the 1960s amidst the conservative wing’s rise under Barry Goldwater.

At the 1964 convention that nominated the Arizona senator, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was roundly booed.  That November, Goldwater carried electoral votes from Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Four years later, by then a New Yorker, Nixon infamously employed a “southern strategy” to win the presidency. The pattern continued through the 2020 election.  Donald Trump lost the Northeast, save for a single electoral vote in rural Maine, and carried the South except for an 11,000-vote loss in Georgia.

Looking forward, it’s hard to see the trend abating.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but a Trump-aligned candidate or Trump himself as the Republican nominee in 2024. What will be missing in the national contest is not only the once-familiar voice of moderate Republicanism. Even get-it-done conservatism of the Ohio kind—exemplified not just by Portman but also former House Speaker John Boehner and Governor Mike DeWine—is evaporating. With its base in the Northeast gone to the Democrats and many of its voters, it has withered itself out of political significance. Whether it’s a Democrat or a Trumplican like Congressman Jim Jordan who inherits Portman’s seat, it’s a dead loss for the Republican Party establishment.

The only remnants of an Eastern Establishment are the moderate GOP governors that the northeastern states elect from time to time, not out of fealty to the Republican Party or its traditional philosophy but simply to keep the Democrats honest—Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, for instance. In the 1990s, the Northeast was dominated by moderate, establishment GOP governors like Bill Weld of Massachusetts, Christie Whitman of New Jersey, George Pataki of New York, and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.

Senator Portman said he’s leaving the chamber because of partisan “gridlock.” His evacuation and the end of the Republican establishment promises to make it worse.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, this spring. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.