Features

GOP abortion crackup?

National | California Republican battle over abortion is a microcosm of the division threatening the national party

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999

If trends spread from California eastward, the national Republican Party had better hold on for a bumpy ride.

The ride was plenty bumpy in California last week as thousands of delegates gathered in Sacramento for the spring convention of the state GOP-a microcosm, in many ways, of the national party. Following the November defeat of GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren and Senate hopeful Matt Fong, the party was clearly in disarray and the blame game was on.

Disgruntled moderates, long out of power in the party hierarchy, were eager to blame conservatives for leading them down the road to electoral defeat. "It's the women, stupid," read stickers on the lapels of many moderates, who charged that Mr. Lungren's staunchly pro-life position had scared away female voters. Adding insult to injury, one resolution floated at the convention called on Mr. Lungren to reimburse the party for a last-minute contribution it had made to his floundering campaign.

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Mr. Lungren wasn't the only lightning rod for the anger of pro-abortion Republicans, however. Conservative Christian activists came under attack to some degree. "Bible thumping hypocrites unrealistic and arrogant" screamed the headline on a pink flier slipped under delegates' hotel-room doors. "Kitchen-shackled and pregnant is an antiquated tradition to force on women," the flier continued. "Traditional values should not restrict us women into the repressive 'dark ages' of sexual roles."

Stickers, fliers, and symbolic resolutions didn't particularly worry conservatives, who couldn't begrudge the moderates an opportunity to vent. But the anti-conservative insurgency didn't end with venting. In an unprecedented move, moderates contested every party office up for grabs at the convention. That strategy was more than mere symbolism: With debate beginning soon on the party's 2000 platform, conservatives worried that a win by the moderate slate could spell the end of the longstanding pro-life plank.

Pro-abortionists organized their so-called "mainstream team" of candidates after Vice Chairman John McGraw, who normally would be expected to assume the chairmanship automatically, refused to soften his unflinching pro-life views. In an interview with a Catholic newspaper last month, the 37-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur called abortion "the most important issue by far.... Killing our babies is the issue of the century. Next to that, cutting taxes or any other issue pales by comparison." In another interview, Mr. McGraw called on the Catholic Church to excommunicate Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, for his pro-abortion views.

Moderates recruited Nicholas Bavaro, a Modesto businessman, to challenge Mr. McGraw for the chairmanship. Even more worrisome to conservatives was Brooks Firestone, the wealthy industrial heir and outspoken pro-abortionist, who challenged pro-life attorney Shawn Steel for the vice chairman's job. Eight other offices also attracted pro-abortion candidates.

In the end, the entire conservative slate won handily, and Mr. McGraw vowed to bring his party back together. "I want this party to be the party of open and honest debate," he said. "But when that is done, I want us to all unite and go after the Democrats."

Democrats wasted no time in going after the new leadership. "I think this is the most anti-choice chair they've ever had," said one Democratic activist. "[Mr. McGraw] said that fighting abortion is his No. 1 priority. We'll use that in a lot of campaigns."

But California conservatives breathed a collective sigh of relief. "We came away elated," said Shirlee Pigeon, editor and publisher of the Conservative Voice, a monthly newspaper for the GOP right. "We were thinking, 'Oh my gosh, where will we go if they pull the [pro-life] plank? We knew where the moderates could go. They have a party that's waiting for them with open arms. But what option was there for conservatives?

"For now, our beloved pro-life plank is safe," Ms. Pigeon said, noting that the election puts conservatives in control for another two years. "But as certain as I'm standing here, that doesn't mean the fight is over."

Those words proved prophetic on the last day of the convention, when moderates walked out after failing to elect any of their candidates. Their exodus destroyed the quorum needed to conduct any further business, leaving a host of resolutions-including one that would deny funding to any Republican who favors partial-birth abortion-in a state of limbo.

If California moderates continue to harbor a grudge, the result for the national GOP could be disastrous. Many of the Republicans in California's massive congressional delegation won their seats with only the barest majorities. Any widespread disaffection among Republican moderates could result in a rout in the 2000 congressional election, conceivably contributing to a loss of the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

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