Features

So much for the big tent

National | Country-club Republicans punish California pro-lifer Bordonaro, send Democrat Capps to Congress

Issue: "Promise Keepers breakdown," March 21, 1998

It was stormy in Southern California last Tuesday, but for once El Niño wasn't to blame. This was a political storm-the first congressional election of 1998 and one widely regarded as a portent of things to come in November.

Democrat Lois Capps beat state assemblyman Tom Bordonaro in a special election to fill the unexpired term of her husband, Walter Capps, who died of a heart attack 10 months after taking office. The race was compelling from the start: Ms. Capps, the grieving widow of a liberal religion professor, facing off against Mr. Bordonaro, a fiery social conservative confined to a wheelchair since an automobile accident 20 years ago. Mr. Bordonaro, in turn, had won the GOP nod by defeating Brooks Firestone, the wealthy vintner and heir to a tire-company fortune who boasted the most liberal voting record of any Republican in the State Assembly.

With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by fewer than 3,000 districtwide, the race was considered a tossup. That led outside groups to weigh in with an advertising blitz that both candidates decried for shifting the focus away from local issues. Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families, the PAC that almost singlehandedly secured the GOP nomination for Mr. Bordonaro, followed up in the general election with television ads highlighting Ms. Capps's support of partial-birth abortion. The National Abortion Rights Action League responded with a $100,000 ad campaign calling Mr. Bauer an extremist-and failing even to mention either candidate in the race. To further muddy the waters, two PACs advocating term limits spent another $300,000 supporting Ms. Capps because Mr. Bordonaro would not sign a pledge limiting himself to three terms-although he does support a Constitutional limit on congressional service, which Ms. Capps opposes.

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Ultimately, Mr. Bordonaro's loss may have had more to do with bad blood than with big bucks. After the bitterly contested GOP primary, the much-ballyhooed "big tent" collapsed spectacularly, with many disgruntled establishment Republicans refusing to line up behind the party's nominee. Just before the election, some wealthy Republicans attended a Capps fundraiser in Montecito while dozens more in Santa Barbara took out a newspaper ad announcing their defection to the Democrats. Even Mr. Firestone's own son donated beer from the family's brewery to the Capps campaign. (Mr. Firestone himself did, however, host a last-minute rally on Mr. Bordonaro's behalf.)

Despite the Republican defeat, Campaign for Working Families director Connie Mackey claimed that "we can be successful with the partial-birth abortion issue." She attributed Mr. Bordonaro's defeat to his 2-to-1 spending disadvantage and the confusion over issues such as term limits. But as for the "bottom-line" issue of abortion: "Partial-birth abortion became a very well-known issue in that district. While I'm sure the people in the district weren't too thrilled to have to hear about the issue, our numbers show that people who became aware of the issue through our ads voted for us."

CWF is already gearing up for its next major test, this one in Illinois' 13th congressional district. State Rep. Judy Biggert, a moderate, pro-abortion Republican, leads the polls there at the moment. But any day now, CWF is expected to hit the airwaves with a $100,000 ad campaign on behalf of her more conservative opponent, Peter Roskam. Ms. Biggert knows that partial-birth abortion has torpedoed the nominations of other moderate Republicans, and she is already framing the issue as one of outside meddling in local politics. "It's not really an issue in this race," she told National Public Radio last week. "The problem is that it's the No. 1 issue of the ultra-conservatives."

With CWF planning to spend up to $4 million in support of pro-life candidates around the country, that refrain is certain to be heard again and again. If pro-abortion candidates continue to lose Republican primaries based on their support of partial-birth abortion, the pro-life wing of the party may convincingly claim to be the "mainstream" of the GOP, challenging moderates to live up to their "big-tent" rhetoric. Meanwhile, vulnerable pro-abortion candidates will continue to complain of outside interference, giving impetus, perhaps, to campaign-reform proposals that would limit the expenditures-and the influence-of groups like Mr. Bauer's.

None of which matters much to Mr. Bordonaro. His concerns are more immediate: He's gearing up to challenge Ms. Capps again in November, when she will have to run for a full term. For Mr. Bordonaro-and for the rest of America-a long election year has just begun.

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