• U.S.

On Heaven’s Ticket

6 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Allen Quist is not the kind of man you associate with the generally progressive politics of Minnesota. Not only is he firmly opposed to abortion and gay rights; he even says men are “genetically predisposed” to be the heads of households. Despite his high-definition conservatism, last week the Minnesota Republican Party chose Quist as its candidate for Governor this year. What makes that more unusual yet is that the Governor of Minnesota is already a Republican, Arne Carlson, and he has every intention of running for a second term.

Carlson, a fiscal conservative who eliminated the state’s deficit, is a moderate on many social issues. That means he’s out of favor with the troops of the religious right who have seized power in the state Republican Party. The feeling is mutual. “Allen Quist represents a radical movement,” says Carlson. “He wants to break down the wall between church and state. That’s not going to fly with the majority of Minnesota voters.”

Will it fly with voters anywhere? Throughout the U.S. this year, the religious right is making its power felt in the G.O.P. Though Christian conservatives did much to set the belligerent tone of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston — which, to put it mildly, was no great advantage to George Bush — the experts were wrong in predicting that the G.O.P. defeat that year would spell the end of their influence. Led by the Christian Coalition, the organization that rose from the debris of Pat Robertson’s failed presidential bid in 1988, the religious right kept up its building process at the local level, jamming G.O.P. committee meetings and state caucuses. The grass-roots effort has paid off in control over the party apparatus in Texas, Virginia, Oregon, Iowa and South Carolina, as well as significant influence in perhaps a dozen other states.

Support from the religious right was crucial in making Oliver North the Republican candidate to oppose Democratic Senator Charles Robb in Virginia. Earlier this month, conservative Christian delegates turned the Texas state convention into a whooping, roiling demonstration of their clout, forcing through the election of their candidate for party chairman and the adoption of a hard-right plank that gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, the ex- President’s son, will now have to run on. Wary moderates like Bush and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson were careful not to offend the rightists, who rolled over anybody in their way. When one centrist delegate argued that the party was not a church, she was roundly booed.

More moderate Republicans are worried that the rightists will push the party so far to the margins on issues like abortion, gay rights and home schooling that mainstream voters will be turned off — a mirror image of what happened to the Democrats in the 1970s, when they tilted left and produced an exodus of what became Reagan Democrats. But at the same time, the G.O.P. cannot afford to alienate a group of voters who may constitute nearly 17% of the national electorate. In any case, party moderates have not had much success in reversing the tide. “The people on the far right are much more interested, much more determined, much more motivated, than the centrists,” says Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who 18 months ago helped organize the Republican Majority Coalition, a now dormant alliance of centrists.

* Accordingly, the early lineup of Republican presidential contenders is already bidding for the approval of the Christian right. Jack Kemp has long been a favorite of theirs. Dick Cheney was keynote speaker at the Virginia convention. Dan Quayle’s memoir is peppered with references to his religious faith and was co-published by Zondervan, a Christian imprint. And the power of the religious right was certified two weeks ago by Bob Dole, who abruptly endorsed Ollie North’s Senate bid after toying publicly with the idea of supporting the independent candidacy of moderate J. Marshall Coleman.

The rise of the religious right is proof of a well-established axiom of politics: even a small number of committed activists can take control of the party caucuses and committee meetings that usually draw small crowds. In Minnesota only about 1% of the state’s active Republicans attended the caucuses that chose delegates for last week’s convention. Ideological commitment also ensures that the troops of the Christian right work overtime for their chosen candidates. “Those who serve,” televangelist Pat Robertson once told TIME, “have a tendency, ultimately, to be those who lead.”

Haunted by that very possibility, some middle-of-the-road Republicans are trying to join forces with the Christian activists and perhaps moderate their demands. “A party big enough to elect a President is too big to agree on every single thing,” insists G.O.P. chairman Haley Barbour. Because they know that the religious right can still be a red flag for a good many voters, some candidates who have its support are playing down the connection. Though several of his regional coordinators are busy forming a Minnesota chapter of the Christian Coalition, even the hard-line Quist is careful to keep his distance. “I have never been in sympathy with Pat Robertson,” he insists. To broaden his moral-issues agenda and build bridges to economic conservatives, he prefers to stress his ideas for a middle-class tax cut.

As they become more schooled in the art of give and take, conservative Christians have been willing to support more centrist candidates and positions. At its state convention two years ago, the California G.O.P. tore itself apart over whether to adopt a strict antiabortion plank. The conservatives won, but in the November election G.O.P. candidates were mowed down by the voters. This year, to avoid hobbling Governor Pete Wilson in his race against Democrat Kathleen Brown, Christians agreed to a softer abortion platform. Religious conservatives are looking for centrists to meet them halfway by supporting candidates like North and Quist, even if they appear to be potential losers in the general election. “If you’re only there for the other party when the going is easy, it isn’t a marriage,” says Ralph Reed, who heads the Christian Coalition. “It’s only an affair.”

In Minnesota it’s more like a divorce. With polls showing him favored by Republican voters 3 to 1 over Quist, Carlson will challenge the Republican nominee in a primary battle this September. If the Quist forces prevail, he warns, voters will flee to the Democrats. “The Republican legislative caucus will be able to meet in a phone booth.” Or maybe the new triumphs of the religious right will be a wake-up call for the rest of the party.

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