This Is No Country for Moderate Senators

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” That old political proverb resonates now more than ever, as modern politics seems hellbent on drumming independent thinkers, mavericks, and centrists out of the game and rewarding partisan loyalists.

Monday’s announcement by Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego that he will challenge Sen. Krysten Sinema for the U.S. Senate in Arizona was the latest shot across the bow—a warning to any Democrat who isn’t willing to get in line.

But a car can hit you going either direction, and in West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin faces a threat barreling down the road from the right.

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If Manchin seeks re-election (“Everything’s on the table”), he will have to once again defy the odds of winning in a state that Trump won by nearly 40 points in 2020.

Like Sinema, Manchin was hounded by progressive activists for much of 2021 for killing the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” legislation. As a result, his approval in West Virginia skyrocketed. Manchin eventually caved, supporting the scaled-down Inflation Reduction Act. And as a result, Manchin’s approval rating plummeted in the Mountain State. You’ve got to pick a lane—this is what happens when you hang out in the middle of the road.

Sinema faced a similar, but opposite, dynamic. Caving more to Democrats would have helped her. Still, her penchant for bipartisan compromise and refusal to nuke the filibuster to pass progressive legislation cast her as a traitor to the left. Sensing what was to come, Sinema declared her independence from the Democratic Party in December 2022. The die was cast. But will claiming a moderate scalp (or two) be smart for Democrats?

Even if you hate Manchin and Sinema, past attempts to pressure them have clearly exacerbated what already looks to be a tough 2024 Democratic Senate map. The results could easily be that two Trumpy Republicans replace two moderate Democrats.

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For example, it’s now possible that Sinema and Gallego could split the Democratic vote, allowing a Republican to win that senate seat with a plurality.

If you are worried about extremism and polarization, it’s within the realm of possibility that the Republican who wins that Arizona election could be someone like Kari Lake.

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Of course, Sinema and Manchin are merely the most famous moderates to get caught up in the modern political meat-grinder that chews up centrists and spits them out.

In the House, moderates—who tend to represent swing districts—are the first members of Congress to be washed out of office whenever the public wants to punish their party for overreach. This results in both political parties becoming more extreme.

The House members most likely to survive tend to be extreme partisans who represent “safe” districts. Because they do not fear losing in a general election (their only fear is losing a primary), they are incentivized to say and do increasingly radical things.

When they predictably win (and centrists predictably lose), the message that moderation is for losers is delivered.

In the Senate, centrists are more likely to be tolerated around election time. But there’s a catch: When the party needs you, you better be there. Thinking for yourself ends when the rubber meets the road. That is the lesson that Sinema and Manchin are learning.

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To be sure, the two major parties measure apostasy differently.

In the Republican Party, overtly “going against Trump” is, for now, the ultimate sin, while in the Democratic Party, it’s more about adherence to agreed-upon progressive dogma.

Regardless, if you fail to fall in line, you’ll get run over. And nobody will say a word.

Almost. On Sunday, Manchin had kind words for Sinema, praising her “independent spirit” and saying that she “stood tall when it was time to stand tall, protecting the institution.”

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However, Manchin is arguably even more vulnerable than Sinema in ’24, and his support won’t matter much in Arizona.

There is still a chance that both Manchin and Sinema could survive, which would be the ultimate maverick middle finger. But make no mistake: The goal of both political parties is to ensure the opposing candidate becomes roadkill.

The vultures are already circling.

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