Rep. Charlie Dent's retirement leaves GOP centrists without a clear leader

Pennsylvania Congressman
Rep. Charlie Dent, (R., Pa.), on Capitol Hill in March 2017.

WASHINGTON — When Republicans in Congress traveled their districts in early spring, many faced furious demonstrators.

In Allentown, Rep. Charlie Dent got a very different reception: a liberal teacher praised him during a school visit and protesters left a poster at his office thanking him for opposing the GOP plan to roll back the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health law.

Riding through his Lehigh Valley district that May afternoon, Dent described “a political realignment” marked by industrial and agricultural America flocking to Republicans, while coastal elites sided with Democrats. His district, reaching from Allentown to Hershey, built on long-gone steel jobs and now, in some places, tied to office work in New York and touched by the city’s cosmopolitan flavor, didn’t fit easily in either camp.

From this platform Dent, 57, became a rarity in Washington: an outspoken, unabashed GOP centrist who seemed to relish defying his party’s hard right — and President Trump — on a national stage.

So on Thursday, when he announced that he will not seek reelection, the move immediately reverberated beyond Pennsylvania. It raised questions about who might fill that void and whether his arm of the party — “the governing wing” of the GOP, as he liked to say — was losing whatever influence it still had.

Dent, after all, was the third moderate House Republican to choose to step aside as the party braces for difficult 2018 elections, saddled with an unpopular president and the traditional backlash that often hits any party controlling the White House and Congress.

In addition, another cochair of the moderate GOP Tuesday Group that Dent led, South Jersey’s Tom MacArthur, had stepped down from that post earlier this year. That came after he had circumvented the centrist bloc to negotiate a health-care plan with the Trump administration and hard-right Freedom Caucus.

And in Pennsylvania, while Dent prepares to leave, the favorite to win the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination is Rep. Lou Barletta, an immigration hard-liner closely aligned with Trump. Democratic and Republican operatives both said this year that Dent’s centrist profile would have made him a great challenger to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey — but that his moderate views would probably doom him in a GOP primary.

While some other Republicans, including most from the Philadelphia area, agree with Dent on policy and tone, he was usually the first and most forceful to speak out, delivering hard-hitting comments that raised the Tuesday Group’s profile.

With nearly seven terms in office and a leadership post on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Dent was an experienced strategist and skilled communicator who could deliver the center-right’s message nationally, said Rep. Ryan Costello, of Chester County.

“That is probably his irreplaceable value,” said Costello, a fellow Tuesday Group member.

Who can fill that role now? “I don’t know,” Costello said Friday, though he predicted that other voices would emerge.

“Charlie’s probably leaving at the peak of his influence,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.), calling him a “go-to guy whenever you needed to get a major piece of legislation through or a deal cut.”

Some political analysts argued that Dent’s departure reflects a party pulled farther and farther from the center.

“It’s not like a Republican party that consists of a significant number of moderates and a larger number of conservatives,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a party that consists of a significant number of conservatives and a significant number of radicals.”

Even most of the 50 or so lawmakers in the Tuesday Group are fairly conservative, Ornstein said. They just seem moderate compared with the rest of the GOP conference.

Lawmakers willing to accept imperfect compromises to advance legislation “are dwindling,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who hailed Dent’s leadership.

Dent argued that he was holding true to conservative values in that he believed in incremental — not radical — change, measured tones, and stability. As he felt those values diminish, particularly in the GOP-driven government shutdown of 2013, he became more and more outspoken, taking on a national profile as a counterweight to his party’s most combative figures.

“I often felt that the party was defined by the loudest, shrillest voices,” he said back in May. “Silence is consent.”

Those same concerns echoed through Thursday’s retirement announcement, which complained of “disruptive outside influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity.”

“It’s fair to say that there was some frustration,” he said in an interview that night. “Basic acts of governance are becoming extraordinarily difficult.”

Several Republicans interviewed Friday discounted the idea that Dent’s retirement signaled a weakening of what is left of the GOP center.

“I don’t think it means we’re diminished in any way, because you still have your voting card, right?” Costello said.

Rep. Leonard Lance, a Tuesday Group member whose central New Jersey district borders Dent’s, said moderates were gaining strength. He and others said Dent’s decision to leave was likely personal.

“I told him this morning I was sad to see him go,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolinian who often clashed with Dent as the leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Other Republicans, however, were aiming to punish Dent for his views. Trump accused him of “destroying” the party during the health-care fight, and State Rep. Justin Simmons announced plans last week to challenge Dent in next year’s GOP primary. He called the congressman “the number-one turncoat” in the party.

Dent said he announced his retirement now to clear the way for other “credible” Republicans to get into the race.

He conceded, however, that it will be a difficult seat to hold, especially in the face of a political environment that could be “analogous” to the wave elections of 1994, 2006, and 2010. His district includes more registered Democrats than Republicans, but it still voted for Trump by eight percentage points.

Ironically, it will be Republicans similar to Dent, including many in his Tuesday Group, who are most at risk.

While Freedom Caucus members represent highly conservative districts where Democrats have next to no chance to win, more centrist Republicans from moderate, politically balanced districts make for the most vulnerable political targets. If elections next year turn against the GOP, they would be the first pushed out of office — potentially leaving behind an even more conservative Republican conference.