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Pressure From the Right: GOP Candidates Bet On Obama Fatigue

5 years ago
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John McCain rails against a bipartisan global warming bill two years after sponsoring one himself? He says he's "dear friends" with Sarah Palin and enjoyed her book? The one that trashes his 2008 presidential campaign? Strange, I thought. Then I saw a poll that showed the sometime maverick-moderate vulnerable to a primary challenge next year from the right.

The Republican primary process has triggered an epidemic of identity crises among prominent and promising Republicans. Between Sarah Palin, tea parties, and the Club For Growth, there are Senate candidates scurrying rightward on everything from taxes and health care to energy, national security, labor issues, and President Obama's stimulus package.

Conservative groups and celebrities already are looking at a short-term win, since the primary victors will either be people they endorsed or people they've helped push to the right. The longer term is more questionable. It's certainly possible that joblessness and Obama fatigue will be so widespread that conservative candidates will go on to win a year from now. But it's equally possible that they'll find themselves out of step with public views, fighting off flip-flop allegations, or both.

Parties tend to go through pendulum swings of practicality vs. ideology. As a political reporter back in 1992, I'll never forget the many New Hampshire Democrats who told me their hearts were with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the most liberal candidate in the primary race, but they were going instead with a centrist Southern governor named Bill Clinton. It had been 12 years since a Democratic president and all they could think about was winning.

A recent CNN poll backs up my sense that it's too soon for Republicans, less than a year out of the White House, to feel that pragmatic or desperate. The poll found that 51 percent of Republicans prefer candidates who agree with them on issues, versus 43 percent who prefer candidates who could beat the Democrat. Meanwhile, fresh off eight years of George W. Bush, Democrats were far more interested in winning, 58 to 38 percent.

Pressure from the right has already defined a Senate race in Pennsylvania, where the anti-tax Club For Growth has endorsed its former president -- former congressman Pat Toomey. That put such a scare into moderate Sen. Arlen Specter that he became a Democrat rather than face Toomey in a primary. Pennsylvania turned out conservative Rick Santorum three years ago in favor of Democrat Bob Casey and last year went for Obama by 10 points. While Specter won five terms as a moderate Republican, Toomey could prove too conservative for the state.

National recruiters were thrilled that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a popular moderate, agreed to run for the Senate. But the Club for Growth and political action committees such as the Senate Conservatives Fund have endorsed conservative former state House speaker Marco Rubio and gone on offense against Crist. The governor is no longer pushing a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, or hosting global warming summits in Florida. He hosted two but canceled a third last summer.

Crist is also disavowing his literal and political embrace of Obama and his recovery plan last winter when the national economy was on the brink of collapse. He told Rolling Stone last spring that he "absolutely" would have supported that plan if he were a senator. But this month he told CNN that "I didn't endorse it. I didn't even have a vote on the darn thing."

So far the Club For Growth's formal endorsements in Senate races are limited to Florida and Pennsylvania, while Palin has weighed in for Texas Gov. Rick Perry in his re-election fight against moderate GOP senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. But the indirect impact of conservative pressure is much broader, affecting Senate races in places like Connecticut, Illinois, Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Delaware. GOP hopefuls are mostly toeing the line, even if it means doing 180-degree turnarounds.

Club president Chris Chocola told me that his group exists to convert candidates to its way of thinking. "I don't think it's problematic at all" that some candidates are changing their minds, he said. "It's a good thing. It's positive. If we're influencing their view on the issues, then we feel like we're doing our job." If some or even all of those people lose, Chocola doesn't plan to be a scapegoat. "There are always people that want to blame us for less than ideal outcomes, but we don't worry about that," he said.

For those of us who closely covered Democrat John Kerry's 2004 campaign for president, it's hard to view flip-flops as a minor issue or a positive for a candidate. In that race it was a hammer that Republicans used to pound Kerry and paint him as untrustworthy.

Mark Mellman, Kerry's pollster that year, doesn't think Republicans will get a pass. If the one-time moderates manage to prevail, he told me, '"They're going to have huge problems because they flip-flopped for crass political purposes and because they're flip-flopping to positions that are going to be unpopular. They are going to end up with both a substance problem and a character problem." The consistent conservatives such as Toomey and Rubio wouldn't have the character problem, he said. They'd just have "a serious substance problem."

YouTube is a trove of entries in the Republican purity sweepstakes. One particularly awkward clip shows Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk saying he voted for a House climate-change bill last June because "it was in the narrow interests of my congressional district" to do so. As a senator, the GOP Senate hopeful said through boos at a September rally, "I will vote no on the bill coming up."

It's unclear how Kirk would do that, since he wouldn't be in the Senate when it plans to take up the bill in spring. Nor is it clear that the bill has "largely died" in the Senate, as he asserts. Furthermore, a bipartisan compromise emerging in the Senate likely will include new nuclear plants and offshore drilling, two steps Kirk told his audience are necessary. Never mind all that. Conservatives have branded the bill "cap-and-tax" because of its cap-and-trade system of curbing emissions -- and once supportive GOP candidates now are fleeing from it.

McCain is one of them. He talks of cap-and-tax and calls current bipartisan efforts by his Senate friends "horrendous." But he can be found on YouTube in his former life as a three-time lead co-sponsor of similar bipartisan energy and climate bills. We may be handing young people "a very damaged planet," McCain said in New Hampshire in summer 2007. "We have to move forward with green technology. We have to have this cap-and-trade system where if somebody reduces greenhouse gases, they earn a credit and they can sell it to somebody else ... It's not as though it's something that's going to be terrible for the American people, although we may have to make some sacrifices."

McCain is feeling squeezed from the right in Arizona. Conservative talk-show host J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman, is in a statistical tie with the most recent GOP presidential nominee -- and hasn't even decided whether to run. Rob Simmons, a former Connecticut congressman running for Senate, is also moving right, reversing past support for cap-and-trade and legislation making it easier to form unions. Centrist Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware voted against health reform under pressure from his party. Now he's trailing Attorney General Beau Biden in the 2010 Senate race.

Obama won Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Florida last year, and might have won Arizona had favorite son McCain not been at the top of the Republican ticket. These are not states dominated by ideologically conservative voters. So Republican primary candidates and voters are placing a bet here. They're betting that jobs will continue to vanish, the deficit will continue to rise, health reform will continue to be unpopular, and Obama's approval rating will continue to erode. They are positioning themselves for the post-Obama era, betting that majorities will be ready to see it end less than two years after it began.

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