The Missing Middle in American Politics

How Moderate Republicans Became Extinct

After Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 U.S. presidential election, the once-mighty Republican Party was reduced to a regional rump. The Democrats won overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate, which they used to pass Johnson’s Great Society legislation. Republicans, meanwhile, were at one another’s throats, having endured the most divisive campaign in modern political history. Goldwater had managed to win the Republican presidential nomination over the impassioned opposition of moderate and progressive Republicans, who at the time may well have constituted a majority of the party’s members. Moderates blamed Goldwater’s right-wing views for the defection of millions of Republican voters. 

To rebuild the party, a number of moderate Republican governors banded together to form the Republican Governors Association, designed to serve as a counterweight to the Republican National Committee, which had been captured by Goldwater conservatives. Shortly after the election, the association issued a statement, sponsored by Michigan Governor George Romney and other leading moderates, calling for a more inclusive GOP and criticizing Goldwater’s campaign. Stung by the failure of many moderates to actively support or even formally endorse his candidacy, Goldwater retorted that he needed no lessons in maintaining unity, having urged party members in 1960 to look past philosophical differences and pull together to support Richard Nixon’s presidential candidacy. Goldwater wrote a letter to Romney dripping with contempt: “Now let’s get to 1964 and ask ourselves who it was in the Party who said, in effect, if I can’t have it my way I’m not going to play? One of those men happens to be you.”

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