The GOP: Tug to the Right?
By David S. Broder
The opening question from moderator John Callaway at the final televised debate before the March 17 Illinois Republican Senate primary was simple: Why haven't Republicans in this battleground state been able to win a Senate seat since 1978?
Loleta Didrickson, 56, the state comptroller, backed by Gov. Jim Edgar and other big-name Republicans, said it was because the GOP had not nominated a candidate who had previously run a statewide race. "People know me," she said, pointing to her 400,000-vote victory in 1994.
State Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, 37, the wealthy conservative challenger, said that name familiarity and a moderate image Didrickson's claimed assets were not nearly as important as a clear message. "Stand up for your convictions," he said. "Don't back down. Articulate our conservative principles as Ronald Reagan did, and you can win in Illinois."
The difference in their answers highlights the contrast in the nasty nominating battle for the seat of freshman Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents up in November. It's insider pragmatism vs. outsider ideology, with the odds being altered by the money Fitzgerald can spend.
The same kind of battle is shaping up in the other two states, California and Washington, where Democratic senators who won in 1992's "Year of the Woman" are fighting for second terms. In all three, the chances of Republicans winning in November turn on the outcome of this ideological struggle.
In California, wealthy conservative businessman Darrell Issa is challenging the more moderate insider candidate, state Treasurer Matt Fong, and late-starting Rep. Frank Riggs for the right to face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
In Washington, the conservative favorite is Rep. Linda Smith and the last-minute hope of establishment Republicans is former King County (Seattle) prosecutor Chris Bayley, who has the advantage of personal wealth. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
The California primary is in June; Washington, in September. So Illinois' St. Patrick's Day voting will provide the first clues to the relative influence of ideology, endorsements and hard cash in 1998 Republican politics. The betting even among some Didrickson supporters is that Fitzgerald's money and message will prevail.
If so, it will repeat 1996 Illinois history. Two years ago, Edgar and other bigwigs anointed then-Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, only to see Kustra upset by a wealthy right-winger, Al Salvi, in the March primary. Salvi in turn lost the November race to Democrat Dick Durbin.
Didrickson told me she will not be caught unawares, as Kustra was. "He spent all his time trying to get Salvi out of the race, and then did only 10 days of TV, because he was saving his money for the fall. I have been running flat-out from day one."
Didrickson's ads have featured not only heavy doses of praise from the popular Edgar but a tag line from Bob Dole (her presidential favorite in both 1988 and 1996) saying, "Hey, Loleta, we need you down in Washington."
Dole and several members of the Illinois House delegation hosted a Washington fund-raiser for Didrickson last week, but money has been a problem. Party chieftains persuaded her to abandon plans to seek the secretary of state job and to run for the Senate, only after Edgar, their first choice, unexpectedly announced he was getting out of politics. They lined up a finance committee headed by the CEOs of Caterpillar and Amoco. But she has been so cash-short she was off the air for days at a time last month.
Meantime, Fitzgerald, scion of a wealthy suburban Chicago banking family, plopped $3 million of his own money into the race in 1997 and told me he expects to have invested again as much by primary day.
In the debate and in mass mailings, Fitzgerald highlighted his antiabortion stand, in contrast to Didrickson's support for abortion rights. She argued that his position on abortion, coupled with his support of a bill to allow concealed weapons, would cost him votes among suburban women a critical constituency in Moseley-Braun's first win.
But polls show him at least even with Didrickson among likely primary voters and some of her prominent supporters are privately worried that his appeal to antiabortion activists and his barrage of ads alleging she supported tax hikes in the legislature will sink her in a low-turnout contest.
If so, the GOP will start the 1998 campaign with a rebuke to the establishment and a sharp tug to the right.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company