Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Definitions fuzzy in Republican Party infighting

November 26, 2001


— Carla Stovall is supposed to be the moderate running for the Republican nomination for governor, but she says her tough-on-crime stance as attorney general makes her conservative.

State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger is the conservatives' candidate, yet had a voting record as a legislator that gave him some support from traditional Democratic allies such as labor unions and plaintiffs' attorneys.

Moderate and conservative labels on candidates boil Republican primaries down to a struggle between the party's two wings. But the definitions behind those labels are fuzzy.

For some Republicans, the label depends upon a candidate's position on abortion. For others, taxes and government spending are key issues.

The labels also may depend upon a particular Republican's friends and allies. Does the person spend more time with Gov. Bill Graves and become a moderate, or with U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and other conservatives?

Use of the terms "moderate" and "conservative" are not universal, though they are favored by news organizations and political scientists.

Moderates sometimes refer to themselves as "traditional" Republicans, reflecting their belief that the state GOP has a long-standing progressive bent. Some conservatives label them liberals or contend they are Democrats too pragmatic to join that traditionally downtrodden party.

At least a few conservatives don't even view the split as ideological, but as the moderate haves against the conservative have-nots, designating the moderates as the "country club" wing.

Moderates sometimes refer to conservatives as "the religious right" or "radical right," to suggest politics infused with evangelical Christianity. Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer refers to conservatives as the "minority" wing, reflecting his view that they account for 30 percent or less of GOP voters.

Conservatives see themselves as the real Republicans, the heirs to President Reagan's political tradition. The conservative Kansas Republican Assembly has referred to itself as the "Republican wing of the Republican Party."

Abortion stance may be key

Stovall argues that she has been labeled a moderate because she supports abortion rights. Shallenburger opposes abortion.

And Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion rights group, has made itself an important source of support for conservative candidates during the past decade.

Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University political scientist, said the moderate-conservative labeling boils down to abortion, regardless of other issues.

"We have to make a decision whether the moderate or conservative label is just a euphemism for what your position on abortion is," said state GOP Chairman Mark Parkinson.

Shallenburger said other issues help separate conservatives from moderates, but abortion is the most important one.

"It's probably 80 percent of it," he said.

But other Republicans disagree that the labels are primarily about abortion.

Kris Van Meteren, executive director of the Kansas Republican Assembly, said moderates would like conservatives to be seen as single-issue activists, to minimize their influence.

Even Parkinson concedes that basing the labels on abortion positions can be problematic. He uses U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran as examples.

"People don't know how to categorize Roberts and Moran," Parkinson said. "They're pro-life, but they hang out with moderates."

The issue of taxes

Van Meteren says taxes are an important issue dividing the two camps, with moderates willing to increase taxes and even push a hike for public schools.

A big push for higher taxes for schools came this past legislative session from prominent moderates, including Graves and Senate Majority Leader Lana Oleen, of Manhattan.

In a postscript to an Oct. 25 letter that Graves wrote for Kansas Citizens for Excellence in Education, the governor said the group is committed to recruiting and supporting GOP candidates "who are supportive of public education."

His letter angered conservatives, and one, Rep. Melvin Neufeld, of Ingalls, replied in writing. He said incumbent Republicans should "refuse to be intimidated."

Sherrer believes the differences between moderates and conservatives are broader.

He said moderates see government as a potential force for good in society, while conservatives see it as the enemy, even while serving in it. Conservatives have helped create that impression with rhetoric that describes government as a problem that needs to be controlled.

Sherrer's remarks also suggest that the Republican split has an ancient political origin.

The moderates seem to be descendants of John Adams, who saw a need for a central government strong enough to preserve order and provide for the public welfare. The conservatives appear to follow Thomas Jefferson, who wanted a weak central government, suggesting one that governed least would govern best.

In the end, what has evolved in Kansas politics is a set of labels with fuzzy definitions behind them.

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