Gilchrest the Latest: Revolt of the Right

My first — my very first — article for HUMAN EVENTS was in August, 1979, when I profiled the candidacy of a minister named Don Lyon for Congress in Illinois. A year before, Lyon had made headlines nationwide when, with support from direct mail czar Richard Viguerie, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), and other pillars of the New Right, had come within a whisker (52% to 48%) of ousting nine-term Rep. John B. Anderson in the Republican primary. Many believed that Lyon’s mighty showing convinced Anderson to leave Congress and run for President in 1980. My “reporting baptism” was about Lyon as a candidate among a handful of ambitious Republicans. (Without the hated Anderson as an opponent, Lyon could not generate the national funding he had two years before and lost in a primary won by a moderate state senator named Lynn Martin. Anderson lost the early presidential primaries to Ronald Reagan and then bolted to run as an independent. He went on to head the World Federalists).

After nearly thirty years as a political reporter, the scenario of conservatives trying to take out the remaining moderate Republicans in Congress seems familiar. Two years after a minister named Tim Wahlberg ousted moderate Rep. Joe Schwartz in Michigan’s 7th District, history repeated itself again: conservative State Sen. Andy Harris handily defeated Rep. Wayne Gilchrest for renomination in Maryland’s 1st District (Eastern Shore). This time, there was no CPAC, but there was a Club for Growth that ran independent TV salvoes slamming the ten-term incumbent as a tax-and-spender.

In addition, a cadre of local conservative volunteers were encouraged to work for Harris by some of the non-conservative stands the 63-year-old Gilchrest has taken over the years: in favor of McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, pro-abortion, opposing the National Rifle Association on restrictions on gun show sales, support for gays in the military, and becoming one of two Republicans to vote for the war funding bill vetoed by President Bush and one of seventeen Republicans in the House to support a resolution critical of the troop surge in Iraq. 

As the Almanac of American Politics pointed out, “His moderate voting record has led to competitive primary contests.” In ’02 and ’04, conservative primary foes won 36% and 38% of the vote respectively. This time — in large part due to his Iraq stance — Harris won with relative ease. The final total was 39% for Harris, 36%, and 21% for State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who also ran to the right of the incumbent.

Harris should win in the fall against Democrat Frank Kratovil, the Queen Anne’s County Attorney. At the gaggle (early morning press briefing) at the White House Wednesday, Press Secretary Dana Perino noted that President Bush supported Gilchrest as he does all Republican incumbents “and now looks forward to supporting the Republican nominee” in the fall.

Does Gilchrest’s demise mean that moderates are becoming extinct in the Republican Party? Not at all. There are still moderate GOPers in the House. Rep. Fred Upton, the senior Republican in the Michigan delegation, survived a stiff primary challenge from conservative State Sen. Dale Sugars in ’04 and remains a leader in the “Lunch Bucket” group of moderate GOPers. But there is only one Republican House Member left in New England (moderate Chris Shays of Connecticut) and, more often than not, when a moderate Republican retires, he is succeeded by a more conservative GOPer (“an upgrade,” is how national conservative activists refer to this transition) or a Democrat.

All told, the results in Maryland’s First District are a sign that, when an ABC News poll shows that 64% of likely Republican voters call themselves conservative (or more than twice as much as say they are moderate or liberal), the candidates they are nominating for the House increasingly show this. George Wallace’s 1968 comment that there “is not one dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties” is outmoded, at least in the House; there’s a good silver dollar’s worth of difference between the parties.

As to whether this will be enough for Republicans to win control of the House in the future remains to be seen.