Moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the race for the Congressional seat in New York's 23rd District after Republican pundits and voters flocked to the more conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava eventually endorsed the Democrat's candidate in the race, Bill Owens, who won the election last night. The odd saga raised questions about what kind of future moderates have within the GOP.
We talk to former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who was once the face of a now-nearly-extinct group: moderate Republicans in the Northeast. He was in office from 1987 until his defeat in 2009, and is now on the board of directors of the CIT Group and co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Click through for a full interview transcript.)
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: We decided we would talk with former Republican Congressman Chris Shays who earned a reputation as a moderate while serving in Congress from 1987 until his defeat in the November 2008 election, a year ago. Actually that was today, right, Chris Shays? A year ago today. Well, you've been busy...
Former REP. CHRIS SHAYS (R-Conn.): I try to forget...
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You've been busy, though. You were elected to the board of directors for the CIT Group, which is a New Jersey based commercial finance company. You're co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan and, you know, you've had plenty to do in the last year. But the reason why I wanted to talk to you, Chris Shays, is, you know, there are some, there are some interesting, and I would have to say puzzling lessons for the GOP in the victory in Virginia and New Jersey and this curious defeat up in the 23rd district, a supposedly safe Republican district in northern New York, what do you make of it all?
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: Well, it's very clear a party that has to adhere so closely to ideology is a party that will become smaller and smaller and smaller. I was the last Republican in New England. There are now 21 Democrats, no Republicans. There are 29(?) Congressional seats, there are 29 Congressional seats in New York and there are only two members of the Republican Party. So out of 50 seats, we have two. You're not a national party, you're not going to be viable. And so, you know, there's going to be a point where conservatives have to decide that a moderate conservative is better than a liberal Democrat.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, how much of this is the pendulum swinging versus some strategic error on the part of the GOP leadership?
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: Well, first off, one of my takeaways, you do a lot better when you don't hold the White House...
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Interesting, interesting...
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: No, no, I mean, you know, I knew when George Bush won, George W. Bush won, you know, nine years ago, I knew that I would be threatened because the moderate is the center of the attack of either the Republicans or the Democrats. Republicans go after the moderate Blue Dogs. The Democrats go after the moderate Republicans.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So your vulnerability was clear even nine years ago.
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: But you know what's the irony? Most Americans are center-right, moderate-right, moderate-left — that's where most Americans are — and both parties run to the extremes.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, let's talk about the curious case of Dede Scozzafava, alright? She's an assemblywoman in northern New York in that 23rd District, a moderate Republican, who was put forward by the GOP there in a special Congressional election until some people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and some maybe more ideological members of your party got wind of it, accused her of being a Republican-In-Name-Only, a so-called RINO.
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: You know, it's the most irritating thing to have people who have never run for public office lecture people about how they should run for public office. One of the key parts of a party is to enable a party to represent a district. I mean, to enable a candidate to represent a district. If you have to be such an extreme and can't represent the very people you were elected by, you're ultimately going to get defeated.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, even more than that though, even more than just irritating — the irritating quality of being lectured by people on the radio, and you know...
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: But who've never run for public office...
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Sure, sure, but it went beyond that because Dede Scozzafava, after really a long career of public service, essentially took herself out of that entire career — she campaigned for a Democrat. I mean, how does, how do you respond to that disillusionment?
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: But, you know, let me say, her final action justified in some cases the criticism that conservatives had. I understood that given that she was doing so bad in the polls she might want to drop out, but my sense was that she should have either been quiet or supported the Republican candidate. And she did Newt Gingrich no favor because she almost gave the indication that she really was more Democrat than Republican.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, putting that aside for a second, that's a very interesting point and I haven't heard that elsewhere. But can you understand the level of disillusionment where you go from an exciting Congressional race where you think you have a chance to win to deciding to just basically walk away from the entire public sector? Is that what this ideological debate does to people?
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: Well politics is tough. You have a candidate, a great friend of mine, a Congressman in, in, in Maryland, he lost a primary and he was a good member and ultimately he supported a Democratic candidate. But some of that is at a peak, it's like, you know, you, you, you hurt me and I'm going to hurt you. Now, the other part of it is it's also a lesson, you can look at it another way and say, listen, if you want make this an issue that it's got to be a pure conservative, not a Republican, then, then neither is going to win and I'll make sure it happens. If conservatives say I'm not going to support a moderate, then there's a real temptation for a moderate to say I won't support a conservative. But you don't become a national party with that kind of approach.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Chris Shays, the, in terms of polarizing the electorate, coming up with ideology and the kind of rhetoric that really fires people up, that was seen as a way to get your voters out to the polls, ten, fifteen years ago. That's how you, that's how you motivated your electorate. And to a certain extent, many of the people in upstate New York seem to have been saying, "We don't like this anymore, that motivates us in the exact opposite election."
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Or motivated Democrats...
CELESTE HEADLEE: Exactly!
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: But, well, you know, in the previous President's election — not this last one, but the one before — 42% of the American people were purple. And, they weren't red and they weren't blue. And they had no party. It was basically 29, uh, 28% Democrat, Republican each and then you had this 42% — excuse me 29-29 — then you had this Republican, this, this group that isn't being represented by anyone. And that's why you have, I think, a lot of unhappiness in our country. They don't see anyone who represents them anymore.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Well, Chris Shays, you speak for them this morning on the program. Former representative who served from 1987 til 2008, or 2009, he was voted out in 2008. Chris Shays, a moderate Republican from the state of Connecticut. The last Republican from New England. Thank you, Representative Shays.
REP. CHRIS SHAYS: Thank you.