Politics 2004Week of October 18

Reaganauts to the Fore

It’s poignant that in the year Ronald Reagan concluded his remarkable life, a growing number of conservatives who cut their political eyeteeth in Reagan’s early campaigns for President are now Republican nominees for major offices. Indeed, just as many up-and-coming Democratic office-seekers in the 1970s and ’80s cited John F. Kennedy as their role model and could vividly recall working in his 1960 campaign or meeting JFK for the first time, Republicans running for Congress or state offices today frequently point to Reagan as their hero and inspiration to enter politics. Here are examples from three of the 11 states holding races for governor and other statewide offices.

Close Call in Cowboy Country

Montana has long been Reagan country. Back in 1976, with a vigorous organization led by several state legislators, supporters of the former California governor routed backers of President Gerald Ford at the state GOP convention and delivered all 20 of Montana’s GOP national convention delegates to Reagan. One of them, State Sen. Stan Stephens, went on to be governor from 1988-92. In 2000, the Big Sky Country delivered 58% of its votes to George W. Bush, re-elected two-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, and won the at-large U.S. House seat, three of the six statewide constitutional offices and majorities in both houses of the state legislature. An overwhelming number of the Republican winners were Reagan-style conservatives.

This year, with Republican Gov. Judy Martz retiring after one term amid several scandals and record-low popularity ratings, signs were strong that Democrats would make a comeback. Their nominee is Whitefish rancher Brian Schweitzer, who stunned the state by coming close (51%-to 47%) to upsetting Sen. Burns four years ago. In that race, Schweitzer made considerable political hay out of the issue of prescription drugs, at one point organizing a busload of senior citizens to go Canada to buy drugs at lower prices. (The tactic was frequently repeated by other Democratic officeholders across the country that year.)

With wide name recognition from his Senate bid and a landslide nomination for governor this year over former House Speaker John Vincent, Schweitzer has long appeared the big favorite to become Montana’s first Democratic governor in 16 years. But all of this changed last week, when a Mason Dixon poll showed Schweitzer’s lead over Republican Bob Brown was down to an uncomfortably close 45% to 41%. In May, the same survey had shown the Democratic hopeful with a handsome 45%-to-35% statewide edge over Brown, secretary of state and former state senate president. With George W. Bush headed for an even larger win than four years ago and Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg a likely landslide winner, Brown was now clearly in a position to keep the governorship in GOP hands.

A U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former teacher, Brown, also a Whitefish resident, had fought his way back from probable demise by underscoring strong conservative themes: his proven record of reducing fees while his state’s chief licensing officer, his strong opposition to gay marriage (“and I favor a constitutional amendment to nail it down”), a firm pro-life stand, and advocating the easing of tax laws and regulations to woo modern high-tech business to Montana. Because of his record of reducing and eliminating fees while secretary of state, Brown also has a strong following among small businessmen.

No one is talking anymore about Schweitzer as a slam dunk this fall. Rather, pundits and prognosticators increasingly echo Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker’s conclusion: “The challenge for Schweitzer is to get a lot of those people to do split-ticket voting. The fact that the President’s running well and that at-large Rep. Dennis Rehberg is running well makes a nice potential coattail effect for Brown.”

(Friends of Bob Brown, PO. Box 584, Helena, Mont. 59624; 406-457-0600)

“The Spirit of the Springfield Massacre”

When they were freshman House members in 1947, Representatives John F. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Richard Nixon (R.-Calif.) took a train together to McKeesport to debate pending labor legislation before a civic group known as the Junto. As they returned to Washington and drew straws for the lower berth, one wonders if the two lawmakers imagined their next debate would be on national television with the prize being the presidency itself.

In 1946, when Alexander Ellis married Nancy Bush, daughter of Sen.-to-be and Mrs. Prescott Bush (R.-Conn.), his groomsmen included several old chums from Yale: James Buckley, John V. Lindsay, John Chafee, and Nancy’s brother George. As he escorted guests to the pews at St. Paul’s Church in Greenwich, Conn., could Buckley conceive that in 19 years, he would be managing the campaign of younger brother Bill for mayor of New York against fellow usher Lindsay?

People have a way of turning up again in individuals’ lives in the most unusual way. So it is in Missouri, where conservative Republican Peter Kinder is now locked in a hard-fought race for lieutenant governor against liberal Democrat Bekki Cook, who once dated the GOPer’s brother James A. Kinder while they were undergraduates at the University of Missouri. As published reports indicate that John Kerry is writing off the Show Me State and the latest St. Louis Post Dispatch poll shows Republican Matt Blunt with a 46%-to-45% lead statewide over Democrat Claire McCaskill for governor, the contest for the open lieutenant governor’s spot is considered white-hot and too close to call. Last week, Cook unleashed a $300,000 TV attack blitz against Kinder.

Lawyer-publisher Kinder cut his political eyeteeth at the 1976 state GOP convention in Springfield, Mo. The 20-year-old undergraduate slept on a hotel floor and helped round up delegate support for his hero Reagan. In what became known as the “Springfield Massacre,” Reaganauts won all but one of the national convention delegate slots–the exception going to Ford-man Kit Bond, former governor and now U.S. senator. Kinder went on to win a state senate seat from his hometown of Cape
Girardeau and, when Republicans won the senate in ’01, he became his state’s first GOP senate president in 53 years.

Both in the minority and as senate president, Kinder was in the forefront on key conservative issues–ranging from a ban on partial-birth abortion (which he co-sponsored) to lifting the legal prohibition on state aid to parochial schools (“An unhappy legacy of anti-Catholicism,” said Kinder, a Protestant). In contrast, declares Kinder, former Missouri secretary of state, Cook is “a militantly abortion-on-demand feminist who is on the wrong side of most Missourians on that issue and on our conceal-and-carry law for guns.” The GOP nominee added that McCaskill, Cook, and two other Democratic statewide nominees were “on the wrong side of 72% of Missourians who voted on the referendum of banning gay marriage.”

Helping the conservative hopeful with hard-hitting radio spots is the other well-known son of Cape Girardeau–commentator Rush Limbaugh, Kinder’s close friend since they were in kindergarten together. “That shows he has good judgment in friends,” says Limbaugh, “and conservative values in government.”

(Kinder for Lieutenant Governor, P.O. Box 712, Jefferson City, Mo. 65102; 573-893-1961)

Current Events in N.C.

“There are second acts in life,” Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, noting that he had first won elective office at middle age and became President less than a month before his 70th birthday. So it is with dentist Bill Current, who after a career that has included stints as Gaston, N.C., Republican chairman and president of the North Carolina Dental Society, has become the Republican nominee for a seat in the state House of Representatives at age 70. He’s trying to succeed fellow conservative Republican Patrick McHenry, who is giving up the seat to run for Congress. Current faces Democrat Shirley Wiggins. Democrats now have a thin 62-to-58 margin in the state house.

To understand what kind of a lawmaker Current will be, voters need only look at his background in local politics. In 1968, when members of the Tarheel State GOP were still numbered almost in single digits, Current was organizing ten counties in the area for Republican Rep. (1966-68) James Gardner, who narrowly lost the governorship that year (and who, at the GOP national convention earlier that year, had made one of the seconding speeches for Reagan in his maiden presidential effort. North Carolina was the only other state besides California to give Reagan a majority of delegates in that tentative, late-starting campaign.)

Four years later, Current was an active volunteer and donor to Republican Jesse Helms in the first of the former TV commentator’s five winning Senate races. Current was also a delegate to the 1984 convention that renominated Reagan. When I asked him why he has decided to pursue a fresh career in politics at an age when most of his contemporaries prepare to retire, Current told me of being in Normandy to commemorate the fallen Americans last year. “When the wind suddenly grew strong at our hotel terrace and blew a chair across it,” he recalled, “I thought of the sacrifices made here and I had a feeling my years of service were not yet over.”

(Current for N.C., 1510 Jackson Drive, Gastonia, N.C. 28052)