The Vacant Center Aisle Caucus?

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 11, 2012 · 10:05 AM EDT

Republican strategists certainly weren’t pleased with Illinois Rep. Timothy Johnson’s post-primary retirement decision, but why was a Democratic Member of Congress from almost 1,000 miles away so upset?

“Shedding a tear for my Center Aisle Caucus co-chair,” Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted Wednesday night after the Johnson news broke.

Even though the Center Aisle Caucus is little-known inside (or outside) the Beltway, both men were trying to leverage the group’s name and mission in their competitive races this year.

Since 2005, a small, bipartisan contingent of Members have met together, often at the Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Capitol Hill, to foster an environment of civility in Congress.

“If you have more friends on the other side of the aisle, you’re less likely to shout ugly things across it,” Murphy told Roll Call in an interview last year about the group, which does not prescribe a center ideology.

But with Johnson’s retirement, Murphy’s likely election to the Senate and Co-Chairman Rep. Russ Carnahan (Mo.) facing an uphill battle in a Democratic primary forced by redistricting, the future leadership of the Center Aisle Caucus is up in the air.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the group’s co-founders began the cycle at political odds. When Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) took over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, it became his job to defeat Johnson, his Center Aisle co-founder.

“I like him personally, I just don’t agree with his [party],” Israel said in an interview days before Johnson’s announcement. “I had to reduce my role with the Center Aisle Caucus and other things when I became DCCC chairman.”

According to Johnson, the two men have always had a very cordial relationship, and things didn’t really change when Israel became DCCC chairman, although he thought it was appropriate for Israel to step down from his Center Aisle role.

Democrats attempted to oust Johnson through redistricting and recruiting, but the GOP Congressman used the Center Aisle Caucus as a credential for his political independence by consistently dropping the name of the group and featuring it on his website. Last October, Johnson hosted Murphy for a joint town hall appearance in his Illinois district.

Johnson’s retirement announcement last week was surprising because it looked as if Democrats would fall short on their effort to defeat him. The Democratic candidate favored by national party strategists failed to make it out of last month’s primary, knocking the race way down on the DCCC’s target list.

According to a Johnson spokesman, the lawmaker will be “fully engaged” in the final months of his term and remains committed to reciprocating Murphy’s help by doing a town hall meeting with his Democratic colleague in Connecticut, where Murphy is in the middle of a semi-competitive Senate race.

Joint town hall appearances are one tangible byproduct of the group. Missouri Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R) and Carnahan, the group’s two other co-chairmen, held a joint event in their home state last year in the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).

Finding new leadership isn’t the only challenge for the group. Boosting attendance can also be tough at a time when partisan rhetoric is at a fever pitch and bipartisanship measures aren’t rewarded by primary voters. Last year, Murphy acknowledged that Members weren’t exactly “beating down the doors” to join.