America Shrugged

by Bob Jones IV

WORLD Magazine (Nov. 14, 1998, Volume 13, Number 44)
Used by permission.

Republicans counted on America's sense of disgust over presidential misdeeds to propel them to new electoral heights. It didn't happen and there was no Plan B - a positive agenda - so the Grand Old Party barely held on to its congressional majority. And with the failure of social conservative candidates, a new struggle for the soul of the party is on.

in Washington - On the third floor of a nondescript midrise office building just outside Washington, D.C., a hundred or so movement conservatives gathered for an election-night fiesta. Under the watchful eye of Leadership Institute founder Morton Blackwell, they gnoshed on Mexican food and milled around in front of seven televisions tuned to various cable news networks.

With all the milling and talking and card-exchanging, it could be difficult to focus on the actual purpose for the evening: the results of the mid-term elections. But anyone who couldn't keep up with the balloting had only to check on the booze to see how the night was shaping up for conservatives. "If the news was good, they'd be drinking a lot more," said one bored-looking woman standing behind the bar. "If we're losing, it's not worth the hangover in the morning."

Alcohol or no alcohol, Republicans across the country woke up Wednesday morning feeling hammered. The euphoria generated by the delivery of the Starr report-and the attendant predictions that Republicans could pick up several dozen seats in the House-were all but forgotten. Instead, for only the second time this century, the party in the White House actually picked up seats in a mid-term election. Democrats gained five seats, trimming the Republican majority to 223-211. And on the Senate side, where just last month the GOP had hoped to win near-total control with a five-seat pickup, the net Republican gain was zero.

As bad as the news was for Republicans in general, however, it was even worse for the party's socially conservative wing. Governors known as vocal Christians were ousted in Alabama and South Carolina, and strong candidates from the religious right lost Senate bids in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Washington state. Meanwhile, moderate or pragmatic Republicans won governorships almost everywhere they ran, including northeastern states generally regarded as Democratic territory. Pundits immediately began saying that ideology is dead, and that the GOP of the next millennium, if it is to be successful, will have to downplay divisive social issues. The struggle for the party's soul is on.

Strategists from both parties knew going into the night that neither side would pick up large numbers of seats. Still, enough Democrats looked endangered that most analysts expected three additional GOP senators and perhaps 6 to 10 House members. Instead, almost every close race broke for the Democrats.

The wild card all along was the Monica Lewinsky affair. Republicans hoped their Democratic opponents would be tainted by the scandal that has gripped Washington all year. Indeed, late-breaking GOP ads in dozens of close races around the country tried to cash in on the president's woes by focusing on issues of character and moral leadership. But voters refused to link a tainted president with their local office-seekers. Americans continued to tell pollsters that they were outraged by the president's conduct, but they consistently failed to take it out on Democratic hopefuls. Rather, they seemed to punish Republicans who had little to offer by way of constructive suggestions for the country.

"The numbers are clear," said the Christian Coalition's Randy Tate at a morning-after news conference in Washington. "The message coming out of this election is that issues do matter. There was no clear conservative agenda articulated by national conservative leaders in Washington. Republicans tried to win a campaign based solely on anti-Clinton sentiment. Democrats had an agenda, albeit a liberal agenda. They talked about liberal approaches to Social Security, education, and health care, and some agenda will beat no agenda every time."

Such criticisms didn't even wait for the morning light, however. As election night wore on and the GOP's historic losses in the House came into focus, more and more of the blame was laid at the feet of Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey. Why had the leadership not crafted a new, proactive agenda similar to 1994's wildly successful Contract with America? Why had they caved in to the White House on the bloated 1999 budget package? Why had they let the core message of lower taxes and smaller government get lost in the Lewinsky mess?

Before the election-night debacle was over, Republicans were openly discussing a shakeup in the House leadership, and party meetings later this month will determine whether Messrs. Gingrich and Armey can cling to power. But whoever wins the speaker's chair will face a tough two years. The GOP's 12-seat majority is one of the narrowest in history, and nervous newcomers may prove skittish about toeing the party line on controversial social issues.

Republicans tried valiantly to spin the news in a way that would emphasize they had lost "only" five seats, but the right wing of the party probably lost much more than that. Several of the highly touted Republican pickups were social moderates like Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Steve Kuykendall (R-Calif.) who may not be eager to back abortion restrictions or other pro-family measures.

In Idaho, Mike Simpson, the moderate speaker of the house, was picked to succeed the much more conservative Mike Crapo, who left his seat to run for the Senate. Although Mr. Crapo was successful, three of his conservative colleagues from the House were defeated in their bids for Senate seats currently held by Democrats. The loss of Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), Mark Neumann (R-Wis.), and Linda Smith (R-Wash.) will likely be a blow to conservative back-benchers in the House.

Most of the House conservatives who sought re-election held on to their seats, though Vince Snowbarger (R-Kan.) was ousted. Helen Chenoweth, the perennial nail-biter candidate from Idaho, won re-election even after admitting to a long-running affair in the 1980s, and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) beat back a challenge from Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, in part by emphasizing her support of partial-birth abortions. Many members of the fiery Class of 1994 faced only token opposition or got a free ride-something that could well change in 2000, given the GOP's weak showing this year.

(In other races spotlighted in WORLD's pre-election coverage: Pro-life Pennsylvania Democrat Pat Casey lost by a mere 606 votes; also in Pennsylvania, independent gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik garnered 10 percent of the ballots cast-312,230 votes-but that was not enough to deny pro-abortion Republican Gov. Tom Ridge re-election; and in Washington, independent candidate Bruce Craswell took just over 6 percent of the vote away from the pro-abortion Republican incumbent congressman Rick White, helping tilt the balance to Democrat Jay Inslee.)

In contests for open House seats, Democrats did better than expected. Tammy Baldwin became the first open lesbian to win election, replacing an outgoing Republican in Wisconsin. In Kentucky, Ken Lucas, a self-styled conservative Democrat, handily defeated Christian Coalition favorite Gex Williams. And in Oregon, Molly Bordonaro, a conservative Catholic and vocal pro-lifer, appeared certain to lose to Democratic businessman David Wu.

The news was not all bad for conservatives, however. At least two Republicans won by running on traditional-values platforms. In Kentucky, Ernest Fletcher gained votes by pointing out his opponent's support for homosexual "marriage," and in Wisconsin, Mark Green beat an incumbent Democrat by attracting numerous Catholics with his pro-life message. Despite such bright spots, the Republican caucus in the new Congress will likely move a bit left, thanks to an infusion of moderates and an exodus among conservatives.

Thinking the House races appeared relatively stable, Republican interest in recent weeks had shifted to the Senate, where some pundits predicted a GOP gain of five seats-enough to block Democratic filibusters of important legislation. Many conservatives would have settled for just three additional seats, allowing them finally to override President Clinton's veto of a bill banning partial-birth abortions. More broadly, conservatives were hoping to import some of the ideological fervor that shook up the political status quo in the House in 1994.

But Republicans of all stripes had to be content with merely holding their 55-45 majority in the upper chamber. Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) were upset in their re-election bids, removing two reliable pro-life votes. Three endangered Democrats-Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.)-all won with relative ease over conservative challengers abandoning seats in the House of Representatives. And in California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer overcame a late deficit in the polls to handily defeat state Treasurer Matt Fong.

A win by Mr. Fong would have added a Republican seat in the Senate, but would also have reinforced the notion that only moderates can win in important statewide races. Throughout the campaign, he projected a bland, inoffensive image carefully calibrated to avoid offending anyone-even the gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans, who demanded late in the campaign that Mr. Fong endorse their legislative laundry list. In exchange for their endorsement, he did. But had he been successful, party leaders would almost certainly have elevated the Fong strategy to the level of doctrine, particularly after an outspoken conservative like Bruce Herschensohn failed in an earlier attempt at a California Senate seat.

Instead, the lone Republican upset of the evening came from Peter Fitzgerald, a social conservative who ousted incumbent Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois. Mr. Fitzgerald's victory proved that a carefully articulated family-values platform, along with an emphasis on lower taxes and smaller government, could still propel Republicans into office. Of course, it didn't hurt that Ms. Moseley-Braun had been under a thick ethical cloud.

In spite of the Fitzgerald win, however, the message of moderation is one many Republican leaders seem eager to hear. And nowhere was that message more clearly delivered than in the governors' races, where the news for social conservatives was bleak. The night started off horribly, with two of the most outspoken Christians in public office-Gov. David Beasley (R-S.C.) and Gov. Fob James (R-Ala.)-falling quickly to vocal proponents of legalized gambling. Hours later, the political balance of power was rocked when Californians chose Gray Davis over conservative Catholic Dan Lungren, returning the nation's largest state to Democratic control for the first time in 16 years.

Republicans picked up seats elsewhere, including Florida and Nebraska, but those races were qualitatively different. Indeed, the GOP's gubernatorial success is already being touted as the future of the party. In statehouse races across the country, Republicans toned down the social rhetoric and won instead on platforms stressing economic results and managerial competence. Even Jeb Bush, though clearly more conservative than his father, played down ideology in capturing the Florida governor's chair.

"Competence over conviction" will likely be the conclusion that most political strategists reach from the mid-term elections. Indeed, that conclusion makes Gov. George W. Bush of Texas the prohibitive favorite to capture the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. With Christian candidates faring badly in 1998, the clout of the religious right is more suspect than ever. Presidential hopefuls like Gary Bauer and John Ashcroft will have to make their decisions in the face of an expected Bush juggernaut. Many party leaders will want desperately to anoint someone who appears non-ideological, and the Texas governor seems to fit the bill.

The question is, will Christians stick around for such a coronation? According to polling by the Christian Coalition, religious conservatives voted Republican only 54 percent of the time in 1998-down from 67 percent in 1994. Far from a sure thing for the GOP, believers are proving to be picky and restless. With two years of political posturing and legislative gridlock in the offing, will the religious right still form a cohesive voting bloc by the time 2000 rolls around?

It's anybody's guess. But Morton Blackwell might want to consider hiring only half as many bartenders for his next election-night Republican fiesta.

Copyright © 1998 WORLD Magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.