As political scientist Danielle Thomsen has shown, more and more would-be moderates are opting out of Congress altogether, choosing not to run because they no longer see a place for themselves. This is true in both parties, Thomsen found — but especially among Republicans. Moderates increasingly feel as if they just don’t “fit.”
And that feeling of not belonging may stem in part from party leaders and party activists who want more extreme candidates to run. (It also helps that more partisan candidates are the ones who are naturally drawn to politics.) In a survey of party chairs at the county-level (or equivalent) branch of government in 2013 — well before Trump became president — local party leaders said they preferred more extreme candidates to more centrist candidates. This finding was true especially among Republicans, who preferred extreme candidates by a 10-to-1 margin. (Democrats preferred more extreme candidates just 2 to 1.) If anything, this ratio may be even more lopsided among Republicans. One of the underappreciated changes in the past few years is the extent to which Trump-styled Republicans have taken over the machinery of state and local parties, which means they’ll be able to shape the GOP well beyond 2020, too.
This swing toward more radical candidates may sound surprising — after all, shouldn’t party leaders want to nominate moderates to win? But considering that the overwhelming majority of legislative elections are now safe for one party, most parties can win regardless of who they nominate. In fact, there’s even evidence that the long-standing electoral price of extremism has all but vanished.