The Danger of Progressives Demonizing Moderates

Ron Kind is a low-drama, hardworking Democratic congressman. No wonder there’s no place for centrists like him in Congress.

As one of just seven Democrats from House districts that voted for Donald Trump in 2020, veteran Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin is exactly the sort of candidate Democrats need to keep their majority in next year’s midterms. A former college football star and an avid hunter, Kind is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a longtime chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, and a vocal champion of the dairy farmers in the sprawling, mostly rural district in western Wisconsin he represents.

But after 13 terms in Congress, Kind has called it quits. “Truth is, I’ve run out of gas,” the 58-year-old said when he announced his retirement earlier this summer. He described himself as someone who “tried to be reasonable, pragmatic, thoughtful” and “worked hard to try to find common ground with my colleagues.”

Kind also called himself a “dying breed in public service,” which could not be more apt.

The moderate Democrat’s likely successor is Trump-endorsed Republican Derrick Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL and café owner who challenged Kind in 2020 and lost by only about 10,000 votes. Van Orden has likened COVID-19 contact tracing to what “the Stasi used to do in East Germany” and complained about a Pride Month display at a library in Prairie du Chien (not exactly a leftist redoubt). He traveled to Washington, D.C., for the January 6 insurrection (allegedly paying for it with campaign funds) and published an op-ed defending his presence at the day’s rallies as a “stand for the integrity of our electoral system.”

Wisconsin’s Third District has grown more conservative. While its voters supported Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, Trump has not only won it twice but also increased his margin in 2020. As a result, Van Orden will likely join a growing caucus of Trump loyalists in the House that includes Marjorie Taylor Greene (of Jewish space laser fame), Nazi-curious Madison Cawthorn, and gun-toting COVID denier Lauren Boebert. It’s hard to believe that Van Orden could occupy the seat once held by Republican Steve Gunderson, Kind’s predecessor, one of Congress’s first openly gay members, who was known for his bipartisanship.

The departure of a moderate like Kind might be cheered by some progressives. No doubt they’ve been frustrated, often with good cause, by moderates like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. “Manchema” have not only insisted on slashing President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion spending package, they’ve also been coy about their bottom line and demanded deal killers like the Hyde Amendment banning federal funds for abortion (Manchin) and no hikes in corporate income tax rates (Sinema).

Nevertheless, Kind’s retirement should be alarming to all Democrats, especially since he’s not the only swing-district Democrat bolting. In addition to Kind, the moderate Democrats heading for the hills in 2022 so far include Illinois’s Cheri Bustos, Texas’s Filemon Vila, and Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick. More are likely to come. Their departures show how miserable life has become for Democratic moderates—not just for the coy sorts like Sinema, but for head-down-sleeves-up sorts like Kind. They’re walking away from tough districts, expensive primaries from fellow Democrats, and a Republican Party that often seems to have purged its sane members. The result, however, is a Democratic majority at risk.

Being a moderate in Congress is a solitary business, as the number of competitive districts shrinks. Just 40 House seats were considered competitive in 2016, compared to more than 100 in 2010. In 2020, The Cook Political Report rated just 27 House races as “toss-ups.” The lack of company means fewer like-minded colleagues and fewer potential collaborators—a liability in the coalition-focused House.

Being a moderate is also unpopular business, as the parties become more polarized (which the current clash over reconciliation amply demonstrates). Moderates not only face existential threats from scorched-earth Republicans, they also face friendly fire from their own party in the form of pressure campaigns and primary challenges. In 2020, for instance, when defeating Trump and securing a House majority should have been the highest priority of all Democrats, progressive groups like Indivisible and Our Revolution endorsed primary challengers against stalwart rank-and-file members such as New Democrats Bill Foster of Illinois, Tom Suozzi of New York, and Rick Larsen of Washington State.

This cycle, the Justice Democrats have so far endorsed four primary challengers against incumbent Democrats, including against the moderates Henry Cuellar of Texas and Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

Playing this kind of 24/7 defense is expensive. Lacking the luxury of “safe” seats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s in the Bronx and Queens, moderates must fund-raise even more than your average member. As I’ve documented, members of the moderate New Democrat and Blue Dog coalitions have to spend twice as much as Progressive Caucus members to defend their seats.

Thanks to these pressures, moderates’ tenure in Congress can be nasty, brutish, and short. Moderates are more likely than their peers to retire from office, says the University of California, Irvine, political scientist Danielle Thomsen, and many moderate-leaning politicians—such as those in state legislatures contemplating higher office—are opting not to run in the first place. “They’re tired of feeling like they’re going into battle, day in and day out,” she told me. Between 1982 and 2010, according to Thomsen’s analysis, about 7 percent of liberal Democrats in the House retired, compared to 10 percent of moderates. (Remember, too, that these percentages derive from a larger base of liberals and a smaller base of moderates, which means a single retirement has more impact on moderates than on liberals.)

This “opting out” by moderates, Thomsen argued, is a driving force of congressional polarization. For instance, moderates are less likely to run for open seats, which means that districts vacated by moderates (as well as open seats generally) are more likely to be filled by partisans. The growing ranks of ideologically driven members, in turn, puts more pressure on moderates, who are then more likely to leave. “For liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats today, the value of congressional office has diminished as they become more at odds with the rest of their party,” she writes in her book, Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates. The political center, she writes, is “a lonely and lowly place to be.”

Moderates’ diminished status and numbers are especially troubling given the persistence of Trumpism. The abrupt lurch in Kind’s Wisconsin district from electing a Harvard-educated moderate to the Trump-enthralled Van Orden signals more than just a switch of party allegiances. (The shift from Gunderson to Kind in 1997 now seems quaint by comparison.) It indicates the heightened threat of a congressional takeover by a Trumpified GOP, which the loss of moderates will only accelerate.

Republicans, for their part, are already far along this path. While Democrats knocked off a bunch of GOP moderates in 2018, from Orange County, California, to Morris County, New Jersey, Republicans have also done their part to purge their party of moderates, and Trump is working overtime to finish the job. Trump has endorsed 22 candidates for Congress in 2022, and all of them, not surprisingly, are not-so-moderate Republicans.

There’s the former Trump aide Max Miller, a die-hard adherent of the “Big Lie” whom the former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham recently accused of domestic abuse. Miller is likely to win the heavily Republican Ohio seat soon to be vacated by Representative Anthony Gonzalez, who announced his retirement in September citing the “toxic dynamics” in the Republican Party. Other endorsements include Joe Kent, a Big Lie fabulist challenging Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington State who voted for impeachment, and Harriet Hageman, who could oust Trump’s fiercest GOP critic, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney.

With anti-Trump Republicans in the House in single digits, Democratic moderates are left as a shrinking but still crucial line of defense against the Trumpian hordes. Of course, Republicans are aiming to wipe out these members as well. So far, the Republican National Committee has identified 47 vulnerable Democrats in districts where Biden lost, that the Democratic incumbent held by fewer than five points, or that Republicans hope to “win” in redistricting.

Among these vulnerable Democrats are Michigan Representatives Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, both of whom narrowly defeated the Trump-backed Republican opponents Eric Esshaki and Paul Junge in 2020. Another is Virginia Representative Elaine Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran who held off former Representative Scott Taylor by fewer than 20,000 votes last cycle. Before his first loss to Luria in 2018, Taylor had voted 97.8 percent of the time with Trump, according to FiveThirtyEight. In 2022, Luria’s strongest opponent is likely to be state Senator Jen Kiggans, a pro-life former helicopter pilot opposed to “liberal one-party rule,” “cancel culture,” and critical race theory. Losing these seats would deprive Democrats of particularly impressive members and potential statewide officeholders. (Slotkin was a CIA analyst; Stevens worked on the Obama-era auto bailout.) It would also strengthen the Trumpist wing, with terrifying consequences should Trump run again, as seems likely.

Given the stakes, liberal demonization of endangered moderate members is folly, serving only to make the GOP’s task easier. Primary challenges from the left make even less sense. That a liberal Justice Democrat could succeed in a highly competitive purple-to-red district is fantasy.

Policy disagreements are a different matter and essential to any broad-based coalition. Working through them civilly and productively is incumbent on all members. It’s no help to anyone if Sinema won’t state her bottom-line number for the Build Back Better bill or gives a childish thumbs-down in a Senate vote on raising the minimum wage. It’s a mistake for even an understandably frustrated Bernie Sanders to say he’s tired of two senators holding up reconciliation when the other 48 want something. The Vermonter knows well that in the real world it takes 50. All sides need to cool it, which is why the loss of a calming presence like Kind will be acutely felt. The aptly named Kind was moderate in temperament as well as ideology. Unfortunately, he’ll likely be replaced by someone who is neither.

Democrats need to keep in mind that the stakes in 2022 are much bigger than the policy debates now dividing them, and that the preservation of the caucus should be their highest priority. Rather than vilifying the party’s moderates, Democrats should be working to grow their ranks.

A previous version of this piece said the Progressive Change Campaign Committee endorsed primary challengers against Representatives Bill Foster and Rick Larsen in 2020. It did not. We regret the error. 

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.