Election 1998 Analysis: A Story of Two Republican Parties -- Which One Will Take Control?

Social Conservatives Routed, Association with Lott, Gingrich Even Drags Moderates Down to Defeat for Second Election in a Row -- Biggest GOP Victories Among Republicans Who Succeeded in Bucking Party Leaders' "Extreme" Image

November 4, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – The 1998 elections were a dramatic illustration of two Republican parties -- a failing Congressional party and its allies tied irrevocably to the religious right and losing ground year after year, and a thriving Governors' party, where inclusion, problem-solving and compassion are winning by huge margins and religious right adherents are being purged. The question after the election is this -- which party will now take over?

"All these religious right candidates running for president in 2000 -- John Ashcroft, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle and Bob Smith -- shouldn't bother packing their bags for New Hampshire this morning," said Richard Tafel. "If the religious right continues to dominate the party in 2000, we will not only lose the White House yet again, we will probably lose the Congress. The question is -- do the Republicans want to win elections anymore? If they do, we need a change in leadership in Congress."

The GOP lost seats for the second election in a row in the House and failed to increase its majority in the Senate. Social conservatives were routed in all regions of the country, especially in their stronghold of the South. Also defeated were moderate Republicans who were tagged as "right wing extremists" by their opponents, and where an association with Speaker Newt Gingrich or Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott allowed the label to stick.

The biggest losers in yesterday's voting, said Merle Black, a leading authority on southern politics, were Christian conservatives and the Republican politicians who tied themselves too closely to their agenda... "There is a lesson in this," he said. "It's the real right wingers who are losing because they are not pursuing an agenda that enjoys majority support."
-- The Washington Post, November 4, 1998

I. The Religious Right Rout

Some of the brightest stars of the religious right were trounced in the 1998 elections. Governor Fob James (R-AL), who was nearly defeated in the primary until Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson and the Christian Coalition rushed to his aid, calling it the "most important race" for their cause in the nation, was soundly defeated by a Democrat in the general election -- the first Democrat victory in that state since George Wallace's final race in 1982. When Governor David Beasley (R-SC), a former Christian Coalition leader in his state, was elected in 1994, religious right leaders proclaimed they had "elected one of our own." Beasley was turned out of office in 1998. Congressman Vince Snowbarger (R-KS), a Christian Coalition activist who led an ouster of moderate Republicans from the Kansas GOP leadership, was defeated.

Senator Lauch Faircloth (R-NC), the most socially conservative GOP Senator running for re-election this year, was defeated by a Democrat political novice. Bob Inglis (R-SC), the GOP nominee for Senate in South Carolina who ran as a proud member of the religious right, could not defeat one of the last southern Democratic Senators left in Congress. Linda Smith (R-WA), the GOP nominee for Senate in Washington, could not overcome one of the most vulnerable liberal Democrats in the Senate. Mark Neumann (R-WI), the GOP nominee for Senate in Wisconsin who reneged on a non-discrimination pledge with Log Cabin Republicans by declaring he would not hire openly gay staff members, could not win even with a significant money advantage against an embattled Democrat incumbent.

The religious right can claim one major accomplishment in the 1998 elections -- they elected the first openly lesbian member of Congress in history. Religious right leaders in the Second Congressional District of Wisconsin instructed Republicans to vote for Neumann for Senate and to leave their ballots blank for the Congressional race, because Republican Josephine Musser was a supporter of gay rights and wouldn't support a complete ban on abortion. They also persuaded state GOP leaders to withhold support from Musser, who was defending a Republican-held seat. Neumann lost, Musser lost, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin was elected to Congress. As a further sign of their ineffectiveness, partial-birth abortion referendums went down to defeat in Colorado and Washington, and medical marijuana initiatives may have passed in as many as four states.

II. Tainted by Association

Other Republicans either won or lost on how successfully they were able to shake the label "right wing extremist" pinned by Democratic opponents. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) was vilified by Democrats and Democratic advocacy groups as an "extremist," was called a "Jesse Helms Clone" by First Lady Hillary Clinton. While D'Amato strongly supported gay rights, he was attacked by gay Democrats as "the architect of the homophobic Republican Party" and was labeled as " Trent Lott's 60th vote" if Republicans made significant gains in the Senate. Despite being one of the most staunch gay rights supporters in the Senate, the "extreme" image of the Republican Party leadership in Congress helped drag D'Amato down to defeat. Even the endorsement from the largest gay rights organization in the nation -- the Human Rights Campaign -- could not overcome it.

California GOP Senate nominee Matt Fong was leading embattled Senator Barbara Boxer (D) in the final weeks of the campaign until Boxer launched a series of negative attack ads, labeling Fong a "right wing extremist." Her campaign and its supporters also employed the "Trent Lott's 60th vote" attack against Fong, and his numbers began to sink. When it was revealed that Fong had contributed $50,000 to Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, one of the leading, anti-gay religious right organizations, Fong's poll numbers plummeted. Even after signing a statement for Log Cabin Republicans pledging support for a long list of gay and AIDS issues, Fong was unable to recover from the taint of Lou Sheldon and Trent Lott.

Maryland GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey ran as a social conservative in 1994 and was defeated. She carefully retooled and moderated her image for 1998 and was running a close campaign when her Democrat opponent ran a series of negative ads claiming Sauerbrey opposed civil rights. Sauerbrey was portrayed as an "extremist" and was defeated by a wide margin.

III. Running Away from the Religious Right and Winning Big

Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) spent his first term distancing himself from the religious-right controlled Texas Republican Party. In fact, Bush was repeatedly attacked by Christian Coalition leader Tom Pauken, who was chairman of the Texas GOP, as being too moderate. Bush publicly rebuked the Texas GOP this summer when it led an attack on Log Cabin Republicans and over 50 openly gay delegate to the State GOP convention in Fort Worth. He won 69% of the vote, including 99% of the Republican vote, proving that despite his public distance from the religious right, they had no political leverage over him in one of the most conservative states in the nation.

Governor George Pataki (R-NY) unseated a liberal Democrat in 1994 and built a record of tax cuts, reinstating the death penalty, supporting AIDS funding and reaching out to gay voters. Governor John Rowland (R-CT) told the New York Times on October 31 that "our party doesn't get it at the national level. Beating up on gays -- all that stuff. That turns my stomach. We're never going to win the White House again unless we have an ability to reach out to people. It's a generation thing, I think. We're really missing it, in terms of our generation." Jeb Bush, the GOP nominee for governor in Florida, ran as a social conservative in 1994 and was defeated, but moderated his image this year, including reaching out to Log Cabin Republicans. Governor Jane Hull (R-AZ) was attacked by religious right activists in the Republican Party for being too moderate on social issues. All four won their races by wide margins -- in Rowland's case by almost 30 points.

Governor Lincoln Almond (R-RI) signed a gay rights bill early in his administration, and fought off attempts by his Democratic opponent to link him to Gingrich and Lott to win re-election. Acting Governor Paul Cellucci (R-MA), a staunch gay rights supporter, was able to win his race in the most Democratic state in the union. Illinois GOP nominee George Ryan was elected Governor of Illinois in part by capitalizing on his Democrat opponent's anti-gay record, touting his own support for non-discrimination policies toward gays, and appealing directly to gay voters in the traditionally Democratic Chicago area with several public gestures including sponsoring a float in the city's gay pride parade.

Illinois GOP nominee Peter Fitzgerald defeated a moderate Republican in the primary by campaigning on religious right themes and social issues. He spent the rest of the campaign scrambling to moderate his image. Even though his opponent had the highest negatives of any incumbent Democratic Senator, she was able to hold him to only 51% of the vote in the final results, making his victory a squeaker rather than a trouncing in an otherwise Republican tide in the state.

The trend is ignored by Republicans at their own peril. Democrats are even running on it and winning -- running almost as centrist Republicans. The Democrat victories in the south were by candidates who ran much like the most successful Republican governor candidates across the country -- pragmatic, inclusive, compassionate problem-solvers who support tax cuts, welfare reform and education. Charles Schumer ran against D'Amato as a supporter of tax cuts and the death penalty, as did Democrat Gray Davis who was elected Governor of California.

IV. The California Disaster -- A Case Study

The Democrats roared to victory in California, re-electing an extreme liberal Senator and the first Democrat governor in 16 years, who will preside over re-apportionment of Congressional districts in 2000. The self-destruction of the California Republican Party is a lesson for the national party.

GOP nominee Dan Lungren was a social conservative who never overcame the lead of his Democrat opponent, who supported the death penalty and successfully reached out to the center in his campaign. Fong was brought down in large part by his association with the religious right, despite his support of gay rights. Ex-Congressman Bob Dornan (R-CA) came to personify the harsh face of the extreme right in California politics, and by persistently nominating him for Congress in the heartland of GOP politics in the state -- Orange County -- the Republicans have succeeding in handing the bellwether seat it to the Democrats for perhaps a generation or more.

The religious right has a strangle-hold on the California GOP infrastructure, and its leaders like Sheldon and others have been given a substantial level of clout, out of proportion with their ability to deliver vote in general elections. Sheldon and the religious right are the kiss of death to statewide candidates, and yet they are given greater and greater visibility within the party. The overall poisoning of the GOP's image in California is so serious that it will be extremely hard for future Republican presidential nominees to win the White House, as the state is becoming a reliable Democrat stronghold. All because the leaders of the party refuse to take on the religious right and far right extremists, and instead have pandered to them.

V. Gay Republicans Keep Winning and Making Strides

The 1998 elections saw continued advances by openly gay Republican candidates running around the country. In May, Mayor Neil Giuliano (R) of Tempe, Arizona was re-elected, and last night D.C. Councilman David Catania (R), who raised more money than any other council candidate in the city, was re-elected over a 21-year incumbent and a crowded field of challengers in a city that has an 11-1 Democrat to Republican registration. Steve May (R) was elected as the first openly gay member of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), the most senior openly gay member of Congress and chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee, won against the toughest challenge of his tenure. His Democrat opponent Tom Volgy was the mayor of Tucson, the first Democrat with serious support base to challenge him. Volgy used a two-pronged attack on Kolbe -- constantly reminding social conservatives in the district that Kolbe is gay, and spending time among Democrats linking Kolbe to the "extreme right wing" GOP leadership in Congress. The strategy did not work, and Kolbe was re-elected.

VI. Failure or Victory in 2000? It All Depends on New Leadership.

"This purge of social conservatives by the voters is a crucial warning to the Republican leadership about the stakes in 2000," Tafel said. "Unless the winning side of this party takes full control of the leadership and the agenda and we move in the direction of the GOP governors -- inclusion, problem-solving and distancing from the religious right -- we will have another night like last night, which means losing the White House and maybe losing the Congress. But the pragmatic, inclusive, problem-solving Republican who takes on the religious right rather than panders to them in 2000 will be the candidate who leads this party to a real victory."

The Congressional GOP leadership wasted the summer trying to explain why homosexuality is a disease akin to kleptomania, meeting with religious right leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family to assuage his threats to leave the party unless his agenda was met, blocking the nomination of openly-gay ambassador nominee James Hormel, and promoting the anti-gay Hefley Amendment, which would have repealed all non-discrimination policies which covered gay federal workers. Dobson and Bauer spent millions of dollars in a disastrous campaign to knock off moderate Republicans in primary elections around the country. Instead of tax cuts, more welfare reform or balancing the budget, the issue of homosexuality was on the front covers of the nation's news magazines. Log Cabin delegates were attacked by religious right activists at the Texas State GOP convention in June, and the leadership was silent while religious right groups launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign against gays.

In the end, D'Amato, Fong and other Republican candidates had to spend the summer running against Lott, Gingrich and the leadership because of their anti-gay comments (Lott comparing gays to kleptomaniacs and alcoholics, etc.) and the refusal to stand up to Dobson and his threats. In the House, 63 moderate and conservative Republicans led a revolt against the Hefley amendment and defeated Dobson's one serious attempt at a legislative victory, rebuking the leadership in the process. But the damage was done, and the label "extremist" stuck to several moderate Republicans who were defeated.

"In 1994, the Republicans ran on an inclusive platform that had no negative social issues attached," Tafel said. "In 1996, the voters struck at the Republicans for what they perceived as extremism. And now, in 1998, the American public is more distrustful of Republican leaders like Lott and Gingrich who go on television and talk about sex than it is of a president who engages in illicit sex in the Oval Office with a 21 year old intern and lies about it. How much worse does it have to get before we have a change in leadership?"

Log Cabin Republicans is the nation's largest gay and lesbian Republican organization, with 50+ chapters nationwide, a full-time Washington office and a federal political action committee.