THE BLOG
10/15/2012 10:28 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Welcoming (Some) New England Liberals Back Into the GOP

Given his overwhelming lead in the polls, Maine Independent candidate and former governor Angus King seems almost certain to serve as the Pine Tree State's next U.S. senator. Even if some hugely unexpected turn of events causes him to lose, however, King still will have a place on the roll call of six New Englanders who have held prominent statewide office in the six-state region during the past two decades. This is a stark difference from the strict two-party system that prevails elsewhere. In the 44 non-New England states only two independents -- Charlie Crist in Florida and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota -- hold significant statewide office in the recent past. So what's in the water in New England? The answer is pretty simple -- liberal Republicanism -- and adapting the national party to include it once again represents a key cultural challenge that the GOP must overcome if it wants to be a majority party in the future.

Putting aside self-described Socialist and de facto Democratic Party stalwart Bernie Sanders, all New England independents to have held significant statewide political power -- King, former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, outgoing Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, sitting Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, and former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords -- can fairly be classified as "liberal Republicans." (Lieberman, of course, was actually a Democratic Party member but attracted the support of prominent Republicans in all of his statewide races.) Liberal Republicanism today can best be described as a sort of pro-business liberalism. All five of the Independents from New England have tended to favor Chamber-of-Commerce causes like tort reform, were (mostly) free-traders, worked to attract big business to their states, and, with the exceptions of union-favorite Weicker, had mixed relations with organized labor. Unlike the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and many Democrats in Congress, furthermore, none of them have a general tendency to seek out a new government program to solve any problem. Despite leaning right in some respects, none of the men have had problems with ample new spending to support pet programs (King had Maine buy a laptop for every schoolchild in the state), all are pro-choice, and none seem particularly allergic to tax increases.

Their positions, of course, put them out of step with much of the GOP's mainstream pro-life, low-tax, theoretically low-spending ways. I disagree with them myself and, were I to vote in a Republican primary that included any of these men, would likely opt for someone more conservative. That said, any party that hopes to compete in a first-past-the-post-system needs to figure out ways to roll out a welcome mat for as many people as possible.

And that should be possible because the Republican Party's overall philosophy isn't necessarily inconsistent with the positions they have taken. For example, the position of nearly all nationally prominent Republicans that state legislatures rather than the federal courts should decide on issues of abortion is fully consistent with electing pro-choice politicians to represent pro-choice states. Since the Republican Party has often presided over expansions of the welfare state (most recently the Medicare drug benefit), likewise, people who favor more social spending should also be welcome in the party. And so forth.

The problem, then, seems more cultural than anything else. Between the 1970s and early 2000s, White Southerners fled the Democratic Party in droves not only because it turned to the left in general but also because they felt culturally alienated: A party that claimed to represent the working class became attached to ideas of snatching guns, banning public displays of religiosity, and using tax dollars to pay for infanticide. The same thing seems to be happening with many former Republicans in the Northeast who hail from white collar or wealthy backgrounds: a party that seeks to ban gay marriage (recognized in almost all of New England), has many loud voices that reject science on climate change, and sometimes gets worked up into anti-immigrant crusades does the same sort of cultural offense as the Democratic Party did to white Southerners. And this, more than anything else, explains why so many liberal Republicans have left the GOP while still rejecting the "government solves everything" nostrums of the Democratic Party. They ought to be welcomed back.

A majority party needs to be able to compete in every region. To attract them back, the Republican Party doesn't have to change much (if anything) in its platform but it does have to change its style and cultural approach. This will make the party truly competitive in New England once again and give it a real chance of building a majority.