Congressional Democratic leaders acknowledge they will need some Republican support to get major legislation approved in the next session. But with so many moderate Republicans ousted in the midterm elections, it remains to be seen whether the new lineup will be able to govern in the middle.
"The centrist’s role and the centrist voice in the political process has unfortunately been diminished because of ideological divisions and partisanship, and has created a huge political chasm in the political process," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of the few GOP lawmakers from New England to win another term.
Republican Rep. Chris Shays is not only the last Connecticut Yankee of his party in the House, he’s the only Republican left in the chamber from New England. The state’s other two GOP representatives, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons, viewed as moderates on most issues, both lost to Democratic challengers.
In New Hampshire, Democrats defeated both Republican congressmen, Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley.
In Rhode Island, moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee was ousted from his position. In Massachusetts, a Democratic governor was elected for the first time in 16 years, putting the statehouse in line with the state’s congressional delegation.
"This is just the latest in a long line of elections in which the number of moderate Republicans has been declining in both the House and the Senate," said Richard Powell, political science professor at the University of Maine, Orono. "The trend has been underway for quite some time now."
Despite diminished numbers, Snowe says moderate Republicans like herself and colleague Susan Collins, who was not up for re-election, will be more influential under Democratic rule.
"I really do think the American people spoke vehemently about what they want from their elected officials, and we all have a collective responsibility to address that," Snowe said.
Powell agrees. "The few moderate Republicans that exist in the Senate are still in a fairly influential position," Powell said. "They still control the swing vote in such a narrowly divided Senate."
In the House, moderate Republicans may wield less influence because of the overwhelming Democratic majority, Powell said. But even there, Democrats realize they need to hold the center.
"Our first efforts are going to be to do those things that I think the mainstream of America wants," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who will head the House Financial Services Committee in the next Congress. He spoke to the Fox News last weekend.
Powell noted that most of the new seats Democrats picked up in the House were won by more conservative candidates deliberately recruited to run in swing states.
What this does, however, is make things more difficult for the Democratic majority, Powell said. "Because Congress is so narrowly divided, the Democrats must be careful not to alienate them."
The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats in the House, is seeking to reach over to the Republican side of the aisle on at least some issues.
"I think that you will see a rise in bipartisanship," said Eric Wortman, spokesman for the coalition. "The leadership of the House has made that clear."
Shays, for instance, while he has had sharp disputes in the past with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has also chafed under conservative Republican leadership that has quashed his efforts to legislate on issues such as energy conservation and the environment.
Although he says he has no intention of switching parties, Shays has said several times since the election that he may be more effective at legislating under Democratic rule.
Wortman, of the Blue Dog coalition, said there’s no doubt that new bipartisan alliances will develop in the coming months.
"There will be people that we can work with and we will do so," he said. "I think you’re going to see things work differently, and it’s going to take a while to change. There hasn’t been much work across the aisle in the past, but we don’t want to conduct things like that."