Races of the Week:Crane vs. Bean

“I first met Phil Crane a few years before he went to Congress,” recalled veteran conservative activist Ron Pearson, executive director of the Conservative Victory Fund (the nation’s oldest conservative political action committee) and a leader of Young America’s Foundation, “He was a college history professor and had written The Democrat’s Dilemma. I drove him around to speak to YAF [Young Americans for Freedom] events in Indiana. Phil always seemed to have holes in his shoes and smoked one Camel after another. And he was dynamic.”

For many young conservatives, it is difficult to appreciate experiences such as those Pearson and other budding activists on the right had with Phil Crane a generation ago. To a number of conservatives, with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan gone, Crane is the last lion of the Golden Age of postwar conservatism. Even to those who know him, it is hard to believe that 35 years have gone by since Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R.-Ill.) resigned his suburban Chicago House district and a young Prof. Crane mobilized fellow enthusiasts from the Goldwater presidential campaign to top a seven-candidate Republican primary field in the special election.

It is also difficult for many to accept that the onetime youthful “Golden Boy” of the right is the senior Republican in the House and senior GOP member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Now 74 years old, the father of eight (one deceased) and grandfather of six with one on the way (“Seven–I take my pro-life position seriously”), Crane is a little grayer and heavier than in his political heyday, but remains as robust and outspoken as when he led the charge against the Panama Canal treaty as chairman of the American Conservative Union a quarter-century ago. He quit his signature three-pack-a-day Camel habit in 1997 and had the last bottle of his favorite Heineken beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, in 2000.

But some still wonder if Phil Crane has the spirit and drive to serve in Congress. Two years ago, the dean of House Republicans won an unusually low 57%-to-43% re-election over Democratic businesswoman Melissa Bean. “That’s because my district was reconfigured to help [fellow Republican Rep.] Mark Kirk in the neighboring district,” explained Crane, “He got Palatine, the most Republican county from my old district, and I got Benton and Zion Counties, which are both Democratic.” Encouraged by her showing, Bean is back, and the historically untouchable Crane is the lone GOP congressman from the Prairie State to be targeted by the Democratic National Committee. In addition, a bead has been drawn on Crane by every conceivable left-wing group, such as the American Trial Lawyers Association and the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education.

Crane responds with the same good-as-Goldwater message that he has always trumpeted, sentiments such as, “Education belongs at home and not federally funded” and “I will never vote to raise taxes short of World War III,” And doing so with the vigor of a young quarterback. “I made 24 trips home in the past year,” he notes. “I speak to high schools and senior citizens groups and I’ve marched in six parades. Not bad for a 74-year-old!” And his campaign is staffed almost exclusively by young adults under 30.

That really is what Phil Crane was about as a teacher in the 1960s and is about as a congressman today–mobilizing the youth of the nation to advance the conservative movement. For that reason alone and for all he has done for them over the years, conservatives should stand with Phil Crane in this tough reelection battle.