Fran DeWine just wanted to talk about apple pie. Campaigning last month for her husband, Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, she handed constituents a family cookbook, complete with Mike's favorite pie recipe and her own "Fran's Best Bread." But one voter was interested in a less appetizing topic: why had her husband defied his party leadership on judicial nominees and joined the Senate's so-called Gang of 14? Taken aback, Fran rambled on like a schoolteacher, explaining the nature of filibusters and the history of Republican appointees on Capitol Hill. Later, when pressed by a reporter, she was more succinct: her husband had defected, she confided, in order to save the Senate.
It is an odd political moment when a wife believes her husband's role in rescuing history's greatest deliberative body is something she has to explain. After all, in May 2005, when the seven Democrats and seven Republicans in the Gang of 14 announced they'd reached a deal on President George W. Bush's judicial nominees--preventing the dread "nuclear option" (where a majority would end a Democratic filibuster and destroy the rules of the Senate) --they were the first to proclaim they'd brought democracy back from the brink. With a classically senatorial mix of solemnity and self-congratulation, they wondered if their deal might be the start of a new civility in Washington. "We have lifted ourselves above politics," said the old Senate stalwart, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. "Thank God for this moment."
But politics has a way of bringing senators back down to earth. With control of Congress on the line this November, both political parties are pressing the wedge issues--immigration, stem-cell research and, most prominently, Iraq. And creatures of the center are struggling to simply stay in the game. Nowhere is the struggle more desperate than inside the Gang of 14, whose alliances across the aisle could cost three senators their jobs. Their fellow Gang members are helping where they can, but some wonder about the future of moderate coalitions in American politics. "This is an incredibly close election," says former Louisiana Democratic senator John Breaux, himself a celebrated centrist. "The bases of both parties don't like anyone who looks like they've helped the other side."
So far, DeWine has most artfully pulled off the balancing act--not surprisingly, by stressing his partisan credentials. At first, his association with the Gang of 14 threatened to sink his political career--one state religious leader called him "an absolute embarrassment." But after the agreement, the Senate confirmed a slew of Bush's federal-court nominees and two Supreme Court justices, and DeWine skillfully recast his participation in the Gang as service to the conservative cause. DeWine tells NEWSWEEK he has an easy answer when confronted by party members who still question the compromise: "Look, we got our judges ... We won." The strategy has helped DeWine shore up Republican support and focus on his Democratic challenger, whom he trails by some eight points.
He isn't the only one struggling. In Connecticut, Democrat Joe Lieberman is withering under charges he's too quick to jump into bed with the Republican Party. Across the state line in Rhode Island, Republican Lincoln Chafee, a congenital compromiser, is in a dead heat with a conservative primary opponent who calls him, accurately, the most liberal Republican in the Senate. Fellow Gang member John McCain has lent Chafee some support--campaigning with him and appearing in an ad--but Chafee increasingly sounds like a man from another era. "I don't understand these people who win saying, 'I'm going to be even more polarizing'," he tells NEWSWEEK.
Inside the halls of the Senate, the Gang of 14 still offers its embattled members shelter from the storm. "The doors close and suddenly Democrats and Republicans are talking to each other without fear it's going to be used against us somewhere," Chafee says. Last month the Gang met in Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor's office to discuss the nomination of William Haynes II, an architect of the Bush administration's detainee policy and Bush's pick for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Most of the Democrats and at least three GOP senators--McCain, Maine's Susan Collins and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham--raised doubts about Haynes's nomination. As they counted heads, they must have wondered how the fall election will affect their numbers. "The consequences to this nation of not being able to reach across party lines ... are monumental," Graham says. "If that ever gets to be impossible, our days as a great democracy are numbered." Among Gang members, he's preaching to the choir, but the choir may soon be shrinking.