Virginia Primary Shows GOP Split on Social Issues

By Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

Virginia Primary Shows GOP Split on Social Issues


Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


After speaking at a soggy campaign event in this oceanside town, Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia sits in an aide's Ford Explorer discussing his reelection bid. Suddenly, he grabs the aide by the shoulder, and points down a nearby sidewalk. "Blue shirt!" he barks. "Go get that guy in the blue shirt!"

Within seconds, Mr. Warner has bolted from the truck, trotted 40 yards, and confronted the bemused man: a reporter for a small Virginia newspaper. The man had written a favorable story, Warner explains later, and he wanted to thank him.

It's not often that a three-term senator jogs after a journalist, especially in a chilly rainstorm. But this is no ordinary election.

Warner is engaged in a bitter GOP primary contest against James Miller, a former Reagan budget director. Like congressional races from Texas to Minnesota, this intraparty feud focuses on social issues.

Warner, who opposes a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and supports background checks for gun buyers, is generally considered a member of the GOP's moderate, establishment wing. Mr. Miller, by contrast, is drawing support from conservative activists with his tough stands against abortion and gun control.

"This race is a bellwether for how the two factions are stacking up for control of the Republican Party," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "It would certainly send a strong message about the power of social conservatives if a three-term incumbent is toppled in his quest for renomination by a candidate who is running primarily with their support."

Virginia is a perfect laboratory to study the Republican rift. In its northern suburbs near Washington and its eastern reaches, the state is dominated by Warneresque Republicans and conservative Democrats whose prime concerns are fiscal.

Yet west of I-95, and in cities like Lynchburg and Virginia Beach, Christian conservatives hold sway. Virginia is home to both Jerry Falwell, one-time head of the Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. In the past two decades, these groups have mobilized in all levels of politics, installing like-minded officials in hundreds of slots. They count the current Virginia GOP chairman, Patrick McSweeney, as one of their own.

"They go and fill a meeting hall with people who've never showed up at a political meeting before," says a top-ranking Virginia Republican. "They vote for their guy, that person becomes the unit chairman, and then they vanish. They're very skillful at that. They're tireless workers."

In Virginia, this growing divide came to a head in 1994 during Oliver North's controversial Senate race against Democrat Charles Robb. …

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