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Businessweek Archives

A Holy War For The Soul Of The Gop

Top of the News


The front-runner for the Republican Party gubernatorial endorsement in Minnesota--a soybean farmer and devout Christian named Allen Quist--has been likened to cult leader David Koresh. The barb, however, isn't a partisan attack hurled by Democrats. The invective comes from mainstream GOP operatives loyal to incumbent Governor Arne H. Carlson, a pro-choice moderate. And they're not stopping at name-calling. With the state GOP dominated by religious zealots dubbed "Quistians," Carlson is likely to be denied his party's endorsement at a June 17 state convention. So he plans to bring his case--and a 17-point lead in the polls--directly to party members in the Sept. 13 GOP primary.

Call it the revenge of the country-clubbers. Stunned by the takeover of at least 16 state party organizations by religious and social conservatives, Establishment Republicans are trading in golf clubs for battle armor as they try to blunt the growing strength of an aggressive right wing. "It's very frightening," frets pro-choicer Mary Dent Crisp, a former Republican National Committee co-chair. "They're sophisticated, they work hard, and they have intensity. We ignore them at our own peril."

The internal warfare could take a tremendous toll on the resurgent GOP. Moderates worry that the party will lose an opportunity in this year's midterm elections to exploit President Clinton's low approval ratings and public outrage at the Democrat-dominated Congress. But their worst fear is that radical rightists will take over the party in a bloodbath in 1996 and lead Republicans to an electoral debacle. "If we nominate a McGovern clone from the right, we could blow the party out of the water for years," says Dolly Madison McKenna, trounced in her bid for the Texas GOP chair.

The hard-liners scoff at such pessimism. Pointing to recent House special election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky, they argue that they are vital to Republican successes. And the right wants to make sure that GOP pragmatists don't compromise on abortion, family values, and other core issues. "The war is on now," warns conservative strategist Greg Mueller. "And when it is over, the hard-core Establishment Republicans are going to be extinct."

The strength of social conservatives within the Republican Party has been growing for two decades. And representatives of the party's right wing, such as religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, were prominent at the 1992 Republican convention. Although the GOP Establishment blames the convention's rightist call for "cultural war" for sinking George Bush's reelection campaign, conservatives emerged stronger and more energized than ever.

"FULL MOONERS." On June 11, religious conservatives engineered a hostile takeover of the Texas Republican apparatus. And with the backing of the Reverend Jerry L. Falwell and Robertson's Christian Coalition, former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North won the Virginia GOP Senate nomination on June 4. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who derisively refers to the hard-liners as "full mooners" for their constant baying, has learned that the conservatives can bare their teeth as well. When he distanced himself from North on June 5, outraged right-wingers prompted Dole to reverse himself and donate $5,000 to North's campaign.

The moderates won't surrender power without a fight, though. In Pennsylvania, Republican National Committee member Elsie Hillman of Pittsburgh spent $300,000 of her own money to create a centrist Republican Future Fund. In the May 10 primary, Hillman-backed candidates triumphed over 10 Christian Coalition candidates in Allegheny County, though her candidates had mixed success in rural areas. But even the fund's executive director, John Denny, says his troops will never match the zeal of the Christian soldiers arrayed against them. "The problem with moderates is just that: We're moderate," says Denny. "We have this live-and-let-live attitude. We've got to get passionate."

On Capitol Hill, Representative Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) decided to stand up to the right and formed a group of 30 GOP centrists. Retribution was swift. A conservative Christian filed against him in the Sept. 13 GOP primary and accused him of coddling pornographers by voting against a 40% cut for the National Endowment for the Arts. Protests Gunderson: "In the name of Christ, the politics of hate these people practice is very scary."

Next door, in Minnesota, the Carlson forces think they were helped when Quist declared that men were genetically predisposed to run families. While such statements may help Carlson in the primary, the holy war may have hurt the party's prospects in November--and beyond. The 1994 skirmishes are only a prelude to the 1996 Presidential showdown. Already, would-be candidates are toeing the line on issues dear to the right, including gay rights, family values, vouchers for religious schools, and prayer in public schools.

The Republicans' internal jihad comes as a joy to Clintonites. "Ultimately, you'll see the crack-up of the Republican coalition," gloats Clinton adviser Paul E. Begala. "They are driving out sensible centrists and conservatives. It's going to be impossible for them to hold both the suburban, dual-income couples and these radical, fanatical right-wingers." White House strategists pray for that scenario. But GOP true believers are convinced it's their prayers God will answer.



Branches of the GOP's family tree:

Branch/Leading lights


George Bush

Virginia Senator John Warner


Ex-Education Secretary Bill Bennett

Former Veep Dan Quayle


Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole

House Minority Leader Bob Michel


Broadcaster Pat Robertson

Senate candidate Oliver North


Commentator Pat Buchanan

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKRichard S. Dunham in Washington, with Stephen Baker in Pittsburgh

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