A Bitter Struggle to Define the GOP's Soul
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 1998; Page A01
ASHLAND, Ky. The battle between the regulars and the righteous for control of the Republican Party has turned at least 15 GOP House primaries and a handful of Senate and gubernatorial nomination contests into bitter disputes over ideology and morality.
Nowhere have the stakes in the fight over the mission of the Republican Party been raised as high as here in the hills and hollows of the Bluegrass state.
The May 26 GOP primary pits two competing versions of conservatism against each other in a fight to succeed Rep. Jim Bunning (R), who is running for the Senate.
"We will put God and country back together and once again we will have an America that will lead the world not just in economics but in moral values," state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams, a Dockers-wearing politician who sports an American flag tie and stresses his alliance with the antiabortion movement, tells voters.
His opponent is Rick Robinson, a corporate lawyer in suspenders and double-breasted suits, who describes himself as a "bleeding-heart conservative" who will never forget his lowly roots in Bromley, Ky. "I represent the mainstream of conservative ideals of Republicans in this district," Robinson, a former GOP district chairman, declared.
Williams is one of a growing number of Republicans for whom social value issues are the primary agenda. He is a leader of the "moral" wing of the Kentucky Republican Party, emphasizing opposition to abortion and gambling and support for prayer in school issues that mobilize white, evangelical Christians. Robinson is a part of the party's conservative economic wing that stresses tax cuts and paring back government. These traditional Republicans worry the party's pull to the right threatens GOP victories in the fall election.
The Kentucky contest reflects the dilemma facing the national Republican Party: Does the GOP do better in November when it moves to the moderate center or when it holds firm to the principles of its conservative base? Will the heat of these battles energize the GOP to take on Democrats or will it depress turnout?
These issues dogging the party are a prelude to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Leaders of Christian and anti-abortion organizations are still angry over the failure of the last two GOP presidential nominees, George Bush and Robert J. Dole, to press their issues. This time they are planning to endorse one candidate in the primaries in an action that could lead to a direct confrontation between the religious wing of the GOP and the more establishment wing.
Voters in Indiana and Ohio today will provide a preliminary indication of where the party is going when they decide whether antiabortion or abortion rights candidates will challenge Reps. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio).
Similar internal fights are taking place in California, where former representative Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), a hero of the right, faces Lisa Hughes in Orange County and conservative Barbara Alby takes on more moderate Doug Ose in Sacramento; in New York where Operation Rescue's Randall Terry is running against radio station owner Bud Walker; in Oregon, where conservative organizer Molly Bordonaro is running against centrist Jon Kvisdad; in Pennsylvania where conservative Bob Kilbanks faces slightly less conservative Joe Uliana.
The Democratic Party is counting on the divisiveness of these primaries to split the GOP and consequently help Democrats win in November.
The mounting discontent of conservatives, especially with Congress's inaction on key social issues, has helped build momentum to oust Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), the moderate chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, in the state's May 19 primary. Goodling has the backing of party leaders but conservative ideologues are behind GOP challenger Charles Gerow, who charges that Goodling has "faked" a commitment to the right.
In the past decade, the drive by the religious right to gain influence and, where possible, control of the GOP has in recent years moved increasingly beyond takeovers of relatively powerless state party organizations to struggles for the kind of power that counts: seats in the House and Senate and, in 2000, the presidential nomination.
"What pro-family conservatives have learned is that it is often more important to control the primary process than it is to control the general election," said Ralph Reed, a political consultant working for Williams and a former head of the Christian Coalition. "If you haven't controlled the primary, you can't surf on a big wave like the election of 1994, you can't surf the wave to take you to the beach."
Religious-conservative political action committees, including Gary L. Bauer's Campaign for Working Families and the Madison Project run by Virginia conservative Michael Farris, are pouring cash into the GOP's ideological primary fights.
In 1994 and 1996, Farris contended, religious conservatives received "pre-nuptial promises" from party nominees: "Just elect us and everything will be wonderful. It happened and now they are not helping with the housework [passing conservative legislation] like they promised, and we are looking for new suitors."
Here in Kentucky, Williams fits the bill as one of the new suitors. A social conservative, he has lined up the backing of an imposing group of Christian right leaders: James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family; Pat Robertson, chairman of the Christian Coalition; Bauer, president of the Family Research Council; William J. Bennett, author of the "Book of Virtues"; Steve Forbes, magazine heir and presidential candidate.
Conversely Robinson, an economic conservative, former congressional aide and district GOP chairman, has the support of virtually every party leader willing to make a commitment, from Kentucky's national committeeman and committeewomen to the Gallatin County GOP chairman. He lists support from the American Bankers Association, AT&T Corp., Citicorp, Goldman Sachs & Co. and Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
"Gex Williams may have some heavy hitters," Robinson said, "but I've got the biggest pitcher in the district," referring to Bunning, who has endorsed him. Bunning was a major league pitcher before he came to Congress.
Robinson has sought to insulate himself from what he and his supporters expect will be an onslaught of mail and phone calls to voters, financed by Williams, challenging Robinson's conservative credentials, especially on the issue of abortion.
Robinson, anticipating criticism for his support of the national party's policy to fund all GOP nominees, including those who do not support banning a controversial late-term abortion procedure, has sent a targeted mailing to antiabortion voters declaring: "I believe life begins at conception. I believe God is the author of life." Robinson defends his support of the policy on the grounds that keeping a Republican majority in Congress is crucial to the larger anti-abortion cause.
Williams, who had not yet done any direct-mail or radio advertising "I'm a wait until you see the white in their eyes kind of guy" signaled what may be his next move when he said in an interview: "I believe partial birth abortion is infanticide and the Republican Party shouldn't be bankrolling people who support infanticide."
An experienced political strategist who has managed a number of local races, Williams described abortion as a highly effective "wedge issue. ... It's the A Number One issue to pull people off somebody else if you've got to do it in a tough race," he said.
Williams has a unique advantage: Reed, his campaign consultant, not only provides advice but he also serves as a major draw at campaign events and he has been a big factor in persuading prominent national conservatives to back Williams. To 38 applauding pastors, Reed declared that the goal of his new consulting firm "is to see 100 godly men and women elected to Congress over the next 10 years. ... For too long, people in the church have thought it was their obligation to just roll over and take it for Jesus."
Reed said over time he has seen "a lot of people with very strong moral convictions. ... They came to Washington and they treated the sewer like it was a Jacuzzi. Gex Williams has demonstrated throughout his public and private life that he is never going to forget who called him to this important work."
Everyone of the pastors interviewed as they left said they planned to vote for Williams.
Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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