Politics & Policy

The O.C.

Will a conservative House seat remain conservative?

Will one of the most reliably conservative congressional districts in the country elect a Republican who favors partial-birth abortion, criticizes Social Security reform, and waffles on free trade?

It will if voters listen to Sen. John McCain and support California businesswoman Marilyn Brewer in next month’s special election to replace Christopher Cox, who resigned from Congress this summer to become head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Brewer is considered one of two major GOP candidates in the race for California’s 48th congressional district. The man standing in her way is John Campbell, a conservative state senator.

Does Brewer even sound like a Republican, let alone a conservative? Here are a few excerpts from her interview with National Review Online:

On partial-birth abortion: “I am pro-choice and I vote pro-choice. You can’t be a little pro-choice.”

On the president’s Social Security plan: “I have reservations about it. I have concerns that people managing their own investments wouldn’t be circumspect about it.”

On the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Congress narrowly passed in July: “I’m not sure how I would have voted on it.”

Campbell, by contrast, is pro-life, a Social Security reformer, and a free trader. He’s also confident: “If the election were held today, I’d get a majority of the vote.”

Under California’s quirky election laws, any candidate who earns more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary on October 4 is elected to Congress. If none succeed, then the top voter-getter from each party advances to the general election, which is scheduled for December 6.

Campbell may be the favorite, but Brewer is at least a top-tier contender. She is certainly Campbell’s only serious challenger in the GOP field–and she’s probably a bigger threat to him now than any other candidate will be later. Only 27 percent of the district’s voters are registered Democrats.

A former member of the state assembly, Brewer owes a lot to the exposure McCain has provided through an endorsement and his appearance in a television ad:

Like Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Brewer is a fighter for lower taxes. Like Nancy Reagan, Marilyn Brewer is a fighter for stem-cell research. And like me, she’s a fighter to protect our oceans and beaches. I’m John McCain. Let me give you a little straight talk about Marilyn Brewer. We need her in the U.S. Congress to keep the spirit of independence alive in America.

In 2000, McCain ran respectably in this district, drawing 40 percent of the Republican-primary vote. Brewer was one of his supporters and now he’s returning the favor. Perhaps that’s an admirable act of loyalty. But it also raises questions about McCain’s shrewdness. Brewer’s “spirit of independence” isn’t going to inspire many conservatives.

It certainly hasn’t inspired many Republicans: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, tem members of Congress, and a slew of local officials have endorsed Campbell. The Club for Growth also backs him and has promised to spend more than $100,000 on his behalf. “Marilyn Brewer had the worst candidate interview with us that I’ve ever seen,” says president Pat Toomey, a former GOP congressman who nearly beat Sen. Arlen Specter in last year’s Pennsylvania primary. “She was evasive on school choice, Social Security reform, and free trade. There’s no way our members could support her.”

On her side, Brewer has McCain and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman.

Among some on the Right, however, Campbell is catching grief for supporting a bill in the state legislature to grant in-state tuition benefits to illegal aliens. “I admit it was a mistake,” says Campbell. “Not a mistake in judgment, but a mistake in process. I’ve voted on thousands of bills in Sacramento. This was one that came up early in my career. The legislation’s language changed between the time I read it and the time I voted on it.”

Campbell says he is firmly opposed to illegal aliens receiving in-state tuition benefits. He has taken a prominent role in the effort to block illegal aliens from receiving California driver licenses. He also co-chairs the California Border Police Initiative, which would create a state-level department to assist the federal Border Patrol.

“I don’t like the president’s immigration program,” adds Campbell. “We can’t allow an amnesty. That’s like telling criminals they can rob banks and we’ll let them off. Everybody would start robbing banks. I’m not necessarily opposed to more legal immigration, but we can’t have that discussion until our laws are enforced. We need a completely secure border.”

Brewer shoots back with a snappy one-liner: “My opponent was for illegal immigration before he was against it.”

Perhaps Campbell deserves to hear about the mistake he made as a Sacramento rookie, because what he’s now aiming to become is a Washington rookie. Yet the real legacy of this special election instead may belong to McCain’s endorsement of a candidate Republicans would label a liberal if she weren’t a card-carrying member of the GOP.

It’s an endorsement McCain possibly will have a tough time living down.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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