Politics & Policy

Gop Primaries Matter

The news from the south.

–It wasn’t that long ago that Republican primaries in most of the south were not exactly nail-biters. Democrats dominated the region for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in races for Congress, state, and local office. The GOP’s fortunes began to improve somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s as strong presidential performances by Richard Nixon in the region helped to pull Republicans into statewide and local offices. After the Watergate debacle, Republicans gave back much of their gains. Even the beginning of the Ronald Reagan era in 1980–and in the south this did constitute a Reagan Revolution–did not really serve to place the party in a competitive position down the ballot.

Over the past several election cycles, however, all this has changed. There’s new evidence for this from Tuesday’s primaries in Georgia and North Carolina, where the GOP not only settled or narrowed the field in important statewide races but also featured some spirited, well-financed, and surprising intra-party fights deep down into the grassroots. While painful, these tough primaries also constitute good news for the Republicans. Now, apparently, it matters who the GOP nominates for office.

In Georgia, the national attention focused primarily on party nominations to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who votes fairly consistently with the Republican majority. Activist conservatives have reason to be disappointed here. U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson, whom Republicans primary voters had rejected in a previous Senate bid in 1996 as being too moderate, cruised to victory Tuesday with 53 percent of the vote. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, a black conservative popular among Republicans across the country, got a disappointing 26 percent of the vote and U.S. Rep. Mac Collins snagged 21 percent. Cain and Collins had both come after Isakson on social issues such as abortion, but Isakson’s significant fundraising advantage and conservative campaign rhetoric appear to have given his challengers little room to maneuver. They were counting on at least a moderately better showing to keep Isakson below 50 percent, the threshold in Georgia for avoiding a primary runoff. Such a result would have offered one of the two a reasonable chance of edging the frontrunner in a low-turnout second primary. But it was not to be.

Sheee’s Back!

Conservatives nationwide have arguably a more acute case of heartburn from the Georgia results with the discovery that former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, the longtime congresswoman who notoriously suggested that BUSH KNEW (about the 9/11 attacks), appears to have gained just enough votes in a comeback bid to avoid a runoff and will likely return to Congress next year to renew her strident and despicable conspiracy-mongering. The fellow black Democrat who defeated her in 2002, Denise Majette, decided to seek the Democratic nomination for Miller’s Senate seat, thus giving McKinney an opening. Majette was the top vote getter in her primary but failed to get over the runoff threshold, setting up a competitive contest with millionaire Cliff Oxford.

Down the ballot, there were several races that many political observers saw as a referendum on the political influence of Sonny Perdue, who surprisingly defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2002 to become the first Republican governor of Georgia in modern political history. Perdue’s win and the GOP’s legislative gains led several Democratic lawmakers to become Republicans shortly after the 2002 election. One was Dan Lee, elected to the state senate in a west-Georgia district in 1998. After his party switch, he served as Perdue’s floor leader in a newly Republican senate, but was upended on Tuesday by freshman Republican Sen. Seth Harp (the two had been redrawn into the same district). While another Perdue ally with Democratic ties, Sen. Bill Stephens, beat back his Republican-primary challenger, the governor’s efforts to aid a Republican challenger to a sitting Democratic state-supreme-court justice fell short. Although the race was technically nonpartisan, both parties were involved–with Republicans trying to portray incumbent Leah Sears as a supporter of same-sex marriage and a “liberal, activist judge.” Didn’t work.

Republicans within and beyond Georgia will console themselves about Tuesday’s results by recognizing that Miller’s Senate seat is probably the most likely Democratic one in the country to flip to the GOP in the fall. Isakson will likely have little trouble defeating either Majette or Oxford.

Reaganization of the Republicans

In North Carolina, the threshold for avoiding a primary runoff is only 40 percent (50-percent thresholds were usually installed in southern states by Democrats to keep black candidates from winning nominations). But that didn’t prevent a runoff in the Republican race for governor, where six candidates were vying for the chance to take on incumbent Democrat Mike Easley. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot lost the race to Easley in 2000. He may have another crack at it in 2004–but only if he can get past Patrick Ballantine, a young and energetic former minority leader of the state senate. Both got about 30 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s balloting, while former congressman and state party chairman Bill Cobey, whose campaign prominently displayed his endorsement by former Sen. Jesse Helms, fell a little short at 27 percent.

If John Edwards’s rise to political notoriety represents the thorough Clintonization of the Democratic party in North Carolina (and elsewhere), then the state governor’s race reflecting the Reaganization of the Republicans. All three leading candidates ran as movement conservatives, with Cobey faltering at the end in part because of poor handling of the tax issue, which was the dominant one in the North Carolina primaries. In a letter to a newspaper, Cobey said that he had never voted to raise taxes while in Congress. Vinroot pointed out that, in fact, Cobey had voted for a few budget bills with small tax increases in them. Cobey is both a strong fiscal and social conservative but he poorly handled the subsequent war of words, when he should have just admitted error, and compounded the problem by failing to take the “no new tax” pledge from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform until just last week–the day before Norquist came to the state to travel with Vinroot’s campaign. It was likely only an oversight, but it opened up some daylight. The three biggest gubernatorial prizes this year–North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana–all have Democratic incumbents, but of those Easley in North Carolina is in the best position for the fall. A trouble sign for Vinroot or Ballantine will be Bush’s continued weakness in the state (he leads by only 3 to 5 points in most polls).

In another significant statewide race, U.S. Rep. Richard Burr was easily nominated to run against Democrat Erskine Bowles for Edwards’ U.S. Senate seat. If Georgia’s Democratic seat is the most likely to go Republican in 2004, North Carolina’s is probably the least likely, with Bowles enjoying an 8 to 10 point lead right now. Still, as is true with the governor’s race, the situation is fluid and North Carolina remains competitive for either party on any given day.

Down the ballot, Republican results in North Carolina offered conservatives much better news than in Georgia. In the state house, a major fissure developed during 2003 and 2004 between the followers of the Republican co-speaker, Richard Morgan, and his more conservative opponents. The tax issue was central–Morgan and his team voted for tax increases in 2003, many in violation of their no-new-tax pledges. In early returns, it appears that the anti-tax hike, anti-Morgan forces prevailed in some 18 contested primaries by nearly a two-to-one margin. And in the U.S. House, Republicans worried about the party’s backslide into trade protectionism were somewhat cheered by the results of two highly competitive U.S. House primaries for GOP-leaning open seats. In both cases, wealthy Republicans with strong business ties in the textile and furniture industries and stressing their opposition to NAFTA and other free-trade policies were shut out of runoffs in favor of movement conservatives with broader agendas.

In the mountain 10th District, for example, freshman state Rep. Patrick McHenry ran an insurgent campaign based not only big TV buys but on young conservative volunteers going door-to-door with DVD players showing McHenry’s campaign video. Unlike his GOP foes, he blamed North Carolina’s poor economic showing of late primarily on self-inflicted tax and regulatory wounds rather than foreign trade. One opponent actually aired a last-minute ad patterned somewhat on the famous Helms “white hands” anti-quota ad of the 1990 election cycle. It showed a worker (the 10th is the most blue-collar district in the United States) at his dinner table breaking the news to his wife that his job had just been sent to China. But McHenry and a longtime sheriff, David Huffman, who stressed social issues and conservative values in his campaign, easily made the runoff. In the other race in the 5th District, the most expensive Republican congressional primary in the country, the two qualifiers for the runoff, state Sen. Virginia Foxx and black conservative activist and Winston-Salem city councilman Vernon Robinson, talked about a variety of fiscal and social concerns while two more stridently anti-trade Republicans fell short.

Both the Georgia and North Carolina primaries offered a mixed bag of results, but one thing was clear–candidates, donors, and voters now care a great deal about who gets the Republican nomination in these traditionally Democratic states. That’s a significant result on its own terms.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a state-policy think tank in Raleigh, and author of the forthcoming Selling the Dream: Why Advertising is Good Business.

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