Off Center

By

When Bill Simon Jr. won California's Republican gubernatorial
primary last month, it was widely viewed as an embarrassment for
the Bush administration. The White House, after all, had publicly
backed Simon's opponent--former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan--on
the assumption that the moderate Riordan stood the best chance of
victory against incumbent Gray Davis in the overwhelmingly
Democratic Golden State.Some commentators were quick to deny any wider political
significance to Riordan's defeat. Riordan lost, The Weekly
Standard's David Brooks argued, because "it wasn't clear he wanted
to be governor." But Riordan also lost because California
conservatives, including three former GOP state chairs,
vociferously rejected his candidacy. His defeat reflects an ongoing
national problem for Republicans: the unwillingness of state and
local Republican organizations, which are still dominated by the
unreconstructed right, to back moderate candidates even when they
stand a better chance of winning in November. Last fall,
conservative Republican nominees for governor--beloved by the grass
roots but unappealing to the broader electorate--lost to centrist,
relatively nonideological Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia. And
that losing trend may continue this fall--not only in New Jersey
and Virginia, but also in California, Illinois, Ohio, and even the
president's beloved Texas.

To be sure, Republicans will benefit this November from George W.
Bush's popularity, much of which stems from his conduct of the war
against terrorism. And GOP candidates all over the country have
undoubtedly received some boost from the public perception that
Republicans are more trustworthy on military affairs than are
Democrats. But foreign policy rarely plays a prominent role in
congressional, statehouse, and gubernatorial elections (after all,
Democrats won the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia a
mere two months after September 11). And on domestic issues, the
Bush administration has thrived in large part by adapting to a
public climate that is not congenial to conservative Republicans.
This climate is centrist, even center-left. That's why Bush has
buried his commitment to privatize Social Security and signed
campaign finance reform. It's why he junked Republican voucher plans
and instead signed a big increase in education spending. And it's
why, whenever possible, he avoids such conservative hot buttons as
abortion, immigration, and affirmative action. It's also why Bush
and his political guru Karl Rove have backed moderate Republicans
like Riordan and Minnesota Senate candidate Norm Coleman.

If the GOP nominated moderates like Coleman all over the country, it
could reap a harvest of victories in 2002 and 2004. The Bush
administration's problem is that die-hard conservatives control
most state and local party organizations and the bulk of
legislative offices; they give most of the money to candidates; and
they are much more likely to vote in GOP primaries. In a Los Angeles
Times survey of likely Republican voters before last month's
California primary, 75 percent of respondents called themselves
conservative, while just 16 percent were self-described moderates.
Needless to say, this kind of ratio doomed Riordan and will create
problems for any candidate who hopes compete in a general
election--and not just in California.

Consider what is happening in Illinois. Republicans have occupied
the governor's mansion in Springfield since James Thompson defeated
the old Daley machine's candidate in 1976, but that streak may well
end this fall. Thompson and his successors have all been moderates
(or even liberals) who appealed to suburban Chicagoans as well as
downstate rural voters; Thompson even garnered the endorsement of
the powerful state afl-cio. But this year conservative Attorney
General Jim Ryan won an extremely bitter primary battle against
moderate Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood (who attacked him for
opposing abortion and gun control) and extreme conservative Patrick
O'Malley (who attacked him for once endorsing an ordinance banning
job discrimination against gays). After the primary, Wood and
O'Malley withheld their endorsements of Ryan, who will face
Democrat U.S. Representative Rod Blagojevich in the fall. With
Blagojevich well ahead in the polls, Rove, who had stayed out of the
primary, has summoned Ryan to Washington for damage control.

In Ohio, Republican Governor Bob Taft is running for reelection.
Ohio has been tilting Republican in the last two decades, but there
have been recent danger signs--including Democratic victories in
formerly Republican Dayton and Columbus, and a surprisingly close
showing by Gore in 2000 in spite of his having abandoned his
campaign in the state. To reach out to moderate and independent
voters, Taft chose Columbus City Councilwoman Jennette Bradley as
his candidate for lieutenant governor. It was a shrewd move: Bradley
hails from the state's fastest-growing county, which has been
trending Democratic over the last decade; she's also pro-choice.
And Taft's decision echoed the kind of winks and nods that Bush has
sent to pro-choice soccer moms over the last two years--choosing
high-profile pro-choicers like Colin Powell to address the GOP
convention in 2000, for example, and naming them to numerous
administration posts.

But Ohio conservatives went ballistic over Taft's decision. Eleven
organizations--including the Ohio Christian Coalition, Ohio Right to
Life, and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum--have called on
conservatives to sit out the election. Stephen Hartkop, executive
director of the Ohio Christian Coalition, says, "We think it is
disenfranchisement of conservatives. We are saying why should we be
supporting someone who runs counter to our views." (While the
Christian right is weak in Washington, it remains strong in states
like Ohio and Texas.) Taft remains the favorite against a
relatively weak Democratic opponent; but if conservatives don't
turn out, this election--as well as several Ohio congressional
races--could prove competitive.

Even in Texas, the cradle of the Bush presidency and (at least for
the time being) no swing state, hard-right control of the state GOP
could spell trouble for the party. As governor, Bush built a
center-right coalition that included substantial Hispanic
support--in part by keeping at bay the state's extreme right wing,
which has always deemed W. a squishy moderate because of his
support for public education. But Bush's departure has emboldened
the hard- liners. In last month's primaries, Texas conservatives,
backed by the state party chair, ran candidates against six
incumbent Republican state legislators who voted for a hate-crimes
bill. Texas's Free Enterprise PAC, funded by poultry king Lonnie
"Bo" Pilgrim and other GOP magnates, sent out ads featuring photos
of men kissing that accused the legislators of endorsing the
"homosexual agenda." The right's candidates didn't win (although
one came within two points), but the challenge has embroiled
Republican Governor Rick Perry in a no- win debate about "the
homosexual agenda"--exactly the kind of debate Bush successfully
avoided.

Meanwhile, Bush's efforts to bring Hispanics into the GOP have been
quietly abandoned. Take last month's Republican primaries: Popular
incumbent Representative Henry Bonilla was renominated; but in
contested Republican primaries for the statehouse and legislature,
where only one Hispanic Republican currently sits, Hispanics lost
all five of five races. By contrast, Hispanic Democrats, who
currently occupy 32 seats, ran in 39 primaries and won 35 of them,
including the primary for governor. With Hispanics now constituting
32 percent of the Texas population, Republican failure to woo them
will be a bigger problem in every election to come.

Texas, it's true, is an unusual case--a conservative state whose
fast- growing Hispanic population could eventually put it in the
toss-up category. But if Republicans in Illinois and Ohio want to
see what happens when their party starts losing the upscale
suburbs, they need look no further than New Jersey and Virginia.
Indeed, last year's gubernatorial victories by Democrats Jim
McGreevey and Mark Warner suggest the growing price the GOP could
pay in swing states for the stranglehold of the hard right.

Take New Jersey's wealthy and populous Bergen County, just outside
New York City. In 1988 it went for the elder George Bush over
Michael Dukakis 58 percent to 41 percent; in 2000 Al Gore defeated
the younger Bush there 55 percent to 42 percent. Likewise, in 1993
and 1997, Bergen County voted for moderate Republican Governor
Christine Todd Whitman, but in 2001 it went for McGreevey against
conservative Brett Schundler. And while moderate Republican
Representative Marge Roukema--60 percent of whose district lies in
Bergen County--managed to weather the pro-Democrat tilt (winning
reelection by 65 percent to 30 percent in 2000), her successor may
not be so lucky. State Assemblyman Scott Garrett--a conservative
who almost defeated Roukema in the 1998 and 2000 primaries thanks
to backing from the Christian Coalition, the Club for Growth, and
the National Rifle Association--is now a favorite, along with
another conservative, to win the nomination to succeed her. Laments
Akram Yosri, a New York University business professor and one of
two moderates in the Republican primary, "This is a moderate
district. This has voted a moderate in for the last twenty-two
years. But ... if you look at the Republican organization at the
county level, it is dominated by conservatives." Anne Sumers, an
ophthalmologist and Roukema supporter, found the Republican primary
electorate so inhospitable to moderates that she decided to switch
parties and run to succeed Roukema as a Democrat. Sumers is a
first-time candidate, but she has already raised more than
$200,000. She might have little chance against a moderate
Republican, but she could defeat a polarizing conservative like
Garrett. It's happened before in New Jersey: In 1998 Princeton
Professor Rush Holt, a political neophyte running in what used to
be a solid moderate Republican congressional district, ousted
conservative incumbent Mike Pappas.

Like Bergen County, the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington,
D.C., used to be Republican country. In 1988 the elder Bush won
Fairfax County 61 percent to 38 percent, and George Allen and Jim
Gilmore carried it in the 1993 and 1997 gubernatorial contests. But
Bush fils barely won Fairfax in 2000; and in 2001 new Democratic
Governor Warner carried it against conservative Republican Mark
Earley. You would think the state's Republicans would be trying to
woo Northern Virginia voters back; but, since Warner took office
this year, they have done almost exactly the opposite.

Virginia law allows concealed weapons even in public buildings. In
response to a shooting at a recreation center seven years ago, the
city of Alexandria passed a law banning guns in public buildings,
and Fairfax County has been planning to follow suit. But
conservative Republicans in Richmond passed a bill this winter
barring local governments from regulating gun use. Fast-growing
Northern Virginia also suffers from traffic jams and overcrowded
schools; but the state, reeling from a fiscal crisis, won't provide
new funds. So Northern Virginia business and school groups have
proposed a referendum that would allow the area's voters to raise
local sales taxes to fund improvements in roads and schools. Under
Virginia's constitution, however, Northern Virginia counties need
state approval to hold the referendum. Warner and the Democrats
backed the referendum; but this winter the Republican legislature
said no. Republicans in the area are up in arms. Says Elaine
McConnell, a Republican county supervisor in Fairfax, "I always
considered myself a conservative Republican, but evidently I am
not." One Republican elected official from Northern Virginia who
didn't want to be identified thinks that Northern Virginia may soon
suffer the same fate as Northern California's Bay Area, which,
outside San Francisco, used to be dependably Republican but is now
solidly Democratic. "That's a frightening prospect, because that's
exactly what is happening to our party."

The Bush administration swallowed Riordan's loss in part because it
realizes California is an unusually Democratic state that
Republicans can afford to write off. But Rove and company can't let
battleground states like Illinois and New Jersey become solidly
Democratic and let solidly Republican states like Ohio, Virginia,
and Texas become swing states. Yet, even as Bush's wartime
popularity soars and Republicans rejoice about their chances this
fall, that may be exactly what is happening.

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