Politics 2003Week of February 3


Exactly one year before the first-in-the-nation presidential primaries in New Hampshire, as the 165 members of the Republican National Committee arrive in Washington for the annual RNC winter meeting, it is a near-certainty that the party leaders will once again discuss a controversial subject that has been coming up at every such conclave recently: how and if state GOP organizations can decouple the presidential convention delegate selection process from their state primaries and choose their delegates by convention.

By now, politicos, pundits, and political junkies are familiar with the arguments for and against primaries. Conservative supporters of having states choose their delegates by primary-a system that, in many states, Republicans were reluctantly dragged into in the early 1970s when Democrat-controlled legislatures began enacting more primary laws-argue that primaries are often more winnable by conservative candidates, and point to the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the Reagan campaign of 1980.

Less ideological supporters of primaries make the case that more people get to participate in the nominating process when permitted to vote in a primary and that a nominee who wins a nomination by courting popular votes in primaries is arguably a stronger candidate than one nominated by “insiders” at a convention.

Nonsense, say primary opponents. As voter participation in primaries is decreasing, they argue, the point about involving more people in the process is obviously not true. Moreover, these GOP primary opponents say that while party conventions are funded by the party and its members, primaries are government-supervised productions funded by tax dollars-not a desirable arrangement from a conservative Republican standpoint. Perhaps with this in mind, the RNC two years ago reversed its long-standing rule that state parties must submit to state election laws and, without opposition, adopted a new measure saying that state party rules shall take precedence over state laws-thereby making it easier for state parties to go the convention route in delegate selection instead of through primaries and have their delegates recognized at the national convention.

Primary foes say their movement has lately been given a major boost by budget shortfalls in many states. Kansas and North Dakota have already scrapped their presidential primaries on the grounds that the tax dollars could better be used elsewhere. Last week, gripped by an $850-million budget shortfall, Colorado prepared to junk its ten-year-old presidential primary as a dispensable luxury. Republican State Senate Budget Committee Chairman Dave Owen announced the end of the estimated $2-million primary next year as one of the things the Centennial State could do without to try to become solvent again.


One Colorado Republican who welcomes the pending demise of the primary is probably the most revered conservative in the state. “I’m not troubled at all by the idea of getting rid of the primary,” former Sen. (1978-90) Bill Armstrong told me last week. “First, doing so saves us [tax] dollars. But beyond that, the present form of a primary has reduced Colorado’s input in the Republican nominating process to zero.” Armstrong noted that when lawmakers crafted the primary legislation nearly a decade ago, they forced proportional representation of delegates on the party rather than making the primaries winner-take-all.

“That discourages candidates from coming here, as they might if the primary were winner-take-all,” the former senator added. “But when we had a convention, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Gerry Ford, Ronald Reagan-they all had to look those delegates in the eye and answer tough questions because they knew the people who went to the conventions were going to make the delegation.”

Would a convention system give more power to office-holders and party bosses? Hardly, said Armstrong, who pointed out that in 1964, when moderate GOP Gov. (1962-73) John Love talked of being a favorite son (and was widely regarded as a front-man for Nelson Rockefeller), he was completely shut out at the state convention. Led by Goldwater chairman Herb Koether, Colorado Republicans sent a delegation to San Francisco with all 18 votes committed to the Arizonan.

Armstrong even more vividly remembers the 1968 state convention in Aspen, when he was the Nixon campaign chairman. On instructions from regional campaign operative Ralph Clark (who would later manage Armstrong’s first winning U.S. House race in 1972), the state Nixon campaign preserved party unity by permitting three of the 18 delegates (including Gov. Love) to go the convention as Rockefeller delegates.

Conventions would also make possible more uncommitted delegates, Armstrong said, while an uncommitted delegate is virtually out of the question in a primary. In 1976, he recalled, supporters of Ronald Reagan “swept our state convention and permitted only one uncommitted delegate-me.” Then-Rep. Armstrong, who ended up voting for Gerald Ford (“I didn’t know Gov. Reagan that well at the time and I had served with Gerry Ford in the House”), recalled checking into his hotel in Kansas City and receiving a call from the third candidate in the race-Harold Stassen. “He knew I was truly uncommitted and wanted to come over and talk to me,” Armstrong said of the late perennial runner. “I told him I was uncommitted, but not that uncommitted.”


Election Results: Alison Litell McHose, onetime aide to Lynne Cheney, was selected by Sussex County (N.J.) Republicans to fill the remainder of the state assembly term of conservative Scott Garrett, who was elected to the U.S. House in November. McHose beat three opponents on the second ballot of the county committee vote and was promptly sworn in for the remaining year of Garrett’s term in Trenton. (See “Politics ‘ 03,” January 13.)….

With the resignation of Al Cardenas as state Republican chairman of Florida, Sunshine State GOPers last week selected National Committeewoman Carole Jean Jordan to succeed him. On the second ballot of the state committee vote, Jordan defeated Vice Chairman Jim Steeling by a vote of 111 to 92. Although both candidates were considered strong supporters of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush (who remained neutral in the race), many on the right remembered that Jordan took a pro-abortion stand when she ran unsuccessfully for Congress against present Rep. David Weldon, a pro-life stalwart, in 1994. . . .

Job Changes: One of the best-liked conservative staffers on Capitol Hill has moved into the private sector. Heidi Stirrup, onetime Reagan White House aide and senior policy adviser to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.), has joined the law firm of Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti. Along with her private consulting endeavors, admirers say, watch Stirrup-who often won high marks for briefing conservatives on Armey’s positions-follow in the footsteps of fellow Capitol Hill staffers Chris Matthews and Ann Coulter into the media commentary business. . .

Maryland Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich has tapped Larry Hogan, Jr., namesake-son of the former Republican congressman from the Free State, as his appointments secretary, and Ed MacDonald, longtime top aide to conservative Rep. Howard Coble (R.-N.C.), as deputy chief of staff.


“I didn’t know Russ Rourke was a Marine,” retired Col. Jack Brennan, onetime Marine Corps aide to President Nixon, told me last week, “but we worked together in different capacities and I always thought he was a gentleman.” Brennan and I were discussing Rourke-Capitol Hill and White House staffer, candidate, and secretary of the air force-who died January 19 after a long illness. His view of Russell A. Rourke was common among those who knew him.

Native New Yorker Rourke’s active duty in the Marines included a tour in Korea in 1953. After graduating from the University of Maryland and Georgetown University Law School, he became the top aide to Rep. (1952-64) John R. Pillion (R.-N.Y.), one of the first Republican House members from the Empire State to carry the cross-endorsement of the Conservative Party, from 1960-64. Following Pillion’s defeat, Rourke became chief of staff for Rep. (1964-74) Henry Smith III (R.-N.Y.).

When Smith retired in 1974, Rourke wrapped up the nominations of the GOP and Conservative Party for the upstate New York House seat. Although the district had been securely in Republican hands for the previous 62 years, Rourke had much stacked against him: Like so many Hill staffers who try to run for office themselves, he had not lived in the district for decades and it was the “Watergate Year” that was so disastrous for Republicans. Democratic nominee John LaFalce, a well-known state legislator, won by a 3-to-2 margin.

Rourke then became the No. 2 White House congressional liaison under President Ford and, following Ford’s defeat, became chief of staff to another conservative Republican House member, Hal Sawyer of Michigan, from 1976-80. During the Reagan Administration, Rourke, as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, was a key player in Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s Cold War-era defense buildup, and went on to serve as secretary of the air force from 1985-86. Rourke and his family then operated a realty company in Annapolis. He was 71.