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Tuesday Mourning

Does a once-influential group of moderate Republicans have any chance of mattering in the new House?

Newt Gingrich’s ’94 Republicans aren’t remembered as a particularly collegial bunch. Fired up by their ideals and their newfound majority, the young Republican guard demanded welfare reform, shut down the government, and eventually impeached the president. But, if not for the Tuesday Group, it could have been much worse.

Formed shortly after the House takeover, the Tuesday Group consisted of approximately 40 Republican representatives who met for a weekly lunch in the basement of the Capitol to discuss their policy priorities. The group provided a private forum for the party’s more moderate members, and, in its own quiet way, it pushed back against the Republican leadership, preventing it from running off increasingly radical rails.

Republicans have now regained the majority in the House, and there are some new strident factions in town. The Tuesday Group still exists. But is there anything a group of self-styled moderate Republicans can hope to accomplish in the current political climate?

The roots of the Tuesday Group stretch back to the early 1980s, when Republicans in Congress joined exclusive social clubs that went by stuffy names like SOS, Chowder and Marching, and the Wednesday Group. Those who joined these groups would gather each week in a rotating member’s office. Over cocktails, members would keep tabs and shoot the breeze—one part gossip, one part policy. “They were all very quiet,” confides Jim Leach, an Iowa congressman from 1977 to 2007. Within the clubs, talk was collegial and frank; confidentiality—generally in short supply in Washington—was assumed. “One of the rules in Washington is if anyone says anything negative about you, it always gets back to you,” says Leach. But the clubs weren’t like that.

The Wednesday Group, of which Leach was a member, was considered the most ideologically moderate. But, over time, the club drifted to the right. Marooned moderates began approaching longtime Minority Leader Bob Michel with their grievances, and it was Michel who spurred the creation of the Tuesday Group. “He said, ‘You know, you guys need to get organized,’” recalls former Connecticut Representative Nancy Johnson. And so, in 1994, the Tuesday Group was born.

The early days of the group were dominated by bad food and freewheeling conversation. There was the “inevitable cold pizza,” recalls Sue Kelly, a moderate Republican from New York. But there was also a sense of seriousness. Unlike most policy meetings, staff stayed quiet; members had to come prepared or be embarrassed. “They were free-for-alls,” recalls former Delaware Representative Mike Castle, who took a turn as co-chair of the group alongside Michigan’s Fred Upton. “If one of us was there, we’d run the thing but that doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t dominate it.”

While the Tuesday Group occasionally pushed moderate legislation, members freely admit that its greatest impact was behind the scenes. Tuesday’s members worked to squash measures that would inevitably divide the party—like strict restrictions on abortion and deep cuts to spending on scientific research or education—“bills that would never have had any workability and would just further drive the wedge between us," says Johnson. Sometimes they were not successful at moderating the GOP (e.g., the government shutdown), but sometimes they were. Castle recalls sitting down with then-Speaker Dennis Hastert to iron out a spending issue that affected environmental legislation, a pet cause of several members. “There was a feeling,” says Castle, “that this group is a minority but still a part of our party and we’ve got to pay some heed to them.”

In this way, the Tuesday Group acted as an important internal balancing mechanism for the party. “Leadership pretended to be a little at odds with Tuesday, but in truth it wanted to be moderated,” recalls Leach. Opinion was not always unanimous within the group, but they nonetheless were often able to approach the party leadership as a bloc. “We occasionally had to ask, ‘Are we going to stick together and make a difference?’” recalls Johnson. “You had to prove that you could beat a bill in order to get heard.”

During the Bush years, however, the group began to struggle. In 2004, it named then-Representative Mark Kirk of Illinois chair, in part to develop Kirk’s “Suburban Strategy,” which was premised on the idea that Republicans could broaden their appeal by catering to socially liberal but fiscally conservative suburban voters. But, with the group often caving to Republican demands for party unity, Kirk’s strategy was denied a chance to take hold. Tuesday’s members—many of whom represented swing districts like the ones Kirk wanted to target—suffered accordingly at the polls. In 2006, Tuesday co-chair Charlie Bass of New Hampshire lost his bid for reelection, and the same fate befell moderate stalwarts like Leach, Johnson, and Kelly, among others.

Concerned about their dwindling ranks, some of the Tuesday Group’s members set up a political action committee, the Tuesday Group PAC, to protect their seats, and they asked Kelly to help run it. “There was a sense of decline,” says Kelly. “Both parties [had] been weeding out moderates.” The PAC’s fundraising, however, was relatively weak, and the group’s members continued to lose elections. Ray LaHood, another longtime Tuesday Group member, retired in 2008, and when former Tuesday co-chair Mike Castle ran for Senate in 2010, he was defeated in the primary by Tea Party-backed challenger Christine O’Donnell.

“Primaries are a healthy thing for the party, but they’ve become a destructive force in some ways,” laments Kelly. “Moderates are the most misunderstood people in Congress.” Castle also admits that the party has become a far less hospitable place for moderates. The Tuesday Group will certainly suffer from his loss; the Republican Party may as well. “Is there the same depth of experience that existed before?” asks Castle. “That’s hard to judge.”

To be sure, the Republican wave of 2010 brought with it at least a few self-styled moderates. Charlie Bass, for instance, was reelected after being out of Congress for four years. “There’s a misperception” that the new Republican members in Congress are all deeply conservative and inexperienced, he told the Washington Post. “To say that the freshman class is a ‘Tea Party class’ I think oversimplifies the unique qualifications of a lot of these members.” Representative Charlie Dent, who serves as the current co-chair of the Tuesday Group, insists that Tuesday’s membership isn’t in decline—rather, that it holds steady at 40 members. “It’s a little more conservative today than when I first joined,” says Dent, “but I often characterize the group as a center-right organization.”

More significant than the numbers, perhaps, are the shifting forces surrounding the group. Suburban districts in metropolitan areas used to consistently produce moderate Republicans. “In the last Congress,” says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University, “there was very little difference among Republicans in terms of what part of the country they came from.” When it comes to the Tuesday Group, members “may be stylistically more moderate” in terms of their language or presentation, Abramowitz adds, “but their voting records say otherwise.”

And so, the group seems unlikely to serve as a foil to the new leadership in any meaningful way. Asked whether there were any policy areas where the Tuesday Group might moderate the GOP agenda, Dent maintained a safe distance from specifics. “We might be able to provide some balance and perspective,” he said. “Some of our members might be able to make some of our colleagues from much more secure districts more aware of the challenges facing those members who represent swing districts.” But when the House convened on January 19 to consider the first test of party purity—repeal of the Democrats’ health care bill—Republicans displayed breathtaking unanimity. Once, the Tuesday Group exercised its influence quietly. Now, it seems possible it won’t have any influence at all.

Jesse Zwick is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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