Off Center

by John B. Judis | April 15, 2002

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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