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Keep Mr. Smith in Washington

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 19, 2002

Some species eat their young. Do conservatives eat their elders?

The question comes to mind in the race for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. Sen. Bob Smith, a two-term senator with three terms in the House prior to that, is facing a Republican primary challenge from Rep. John Sununu, son of the former governor and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. Both men are conservatives, although Sunnunu tends to emphasize economics and Smith tends to emphasize social issues. But Smith has consistently been an outspoken defender of so many conservative causes that it makes you wonder why a conservative challenger is running against him at all, much less one who has been endorsed by National Review.

Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. John Sununu, left, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Smith interupt each other during a televised debate at WNDS in Derry, N.H. on August 12
Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. John Sununu, left, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Smith interupt each other during a televised debate at WNDS in Derry, N.H. on August 12

Smith has been a leader in challenging wasteful government spending. He has fought battles against policies and agreements that compromise U.S. national sovereignty. He is unapologetically pro-life and a tireless defender of the Second Amendment. Smith, a former high school teacher first elected to Congress in 1984, considers himself a political disciple of Ronald Reagan.

Yet many conservatives openly hope for his defeat. Sununu was drafted by such New Hampshire conservatives as former Gov. Stephen Merrill and counts Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum and former Vice President Dan Quayle among his endorsements.

Part of Smith's vulnerability is attributable to "the Dornan effect." Following his narrow reelection victory in 1996, where the major networks inaccurately projected his Democratic opponent Dick Swett the winner based on exit polling data, Smith decided to run for president in 2000. He spent much of his time stuck at 1 percent or less in the polls and did not even make it to his home state's first-in-the-nation primary. Many analysts believe that a similarly disastrous presidential bid by conservative firebrand Rep. Bob Dornan (R-CA) embarrassed his constituents in 1996 and contributed to his defeat when he ran for reelection to his House seat that year.

(At least Sen. Smith doesn't have to worry about the votes of illegal immigrants.)

Of course, Smith did Bob Dornan one better. Not only did his bid for the Republican presidential nomination go nowhere, but he left the Republican Party entirely to become an independent. Although he declined an offer to seek the presidential nomination of Howard Phillips' Constitution Party, Smith denounced the GOP as having abandoned its principles in a July 1999 floor speech and continued to campaign for president as a conservative independent.

Sununu's backers portray Smith as an erratic turncoat who embarrassed the state, left the GOP and then opportunistically came crawling back four months later when Sen. John Chafee (R-RI) died and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairmanship was up for grabs. Certainly, his decision to leave the party was poorly thought out and his return was horribly timed.

But unlike Vermont's Jim Jeffords, Smith continued to align himself with the Republicans for purposes of organizing the Senate - thus helping to preserve the GOP Senate majority - and continued to vote with the GOP more frequently than all but a couple of senators. An ex-staffer told me that Smith thought he could do more to move the Senate rightward by working outside the system and encouraging rebellion among GOP conservatives; his decision to return was made when he concluded this was not the case. By most accounts, Smith was in talks with Republican leaders about returning at least a week before Chafee died.

In addition to the "Dornan effect," Manchester Union-Leader columnist Bernadette Malone says Smith has "a Gary Bauer problem." Bauer, readers may recall, attempted to run for president in 2000 as something of a Pat Buchanan Lite. He reached out to his religious conservative base with full-throttle social conservatism, but moved left on issues like trade and Social Security privatization in order to flirt with economic populism. According to Malone, Smith has undergone a similar "leftward lurch on environmental issues" due to his opposition to drilling ANWR and concern about global warming.

Yet Smith has always been less doctrinaire than other conservatives on environmental issues. When he opted to seek the Environment and Public Works chairmanship, The Boston Globe endorsed him over fellow conservative Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) because of his 36 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters versus Inhofe's 9 percent. Many commentators, most recently Steve Sailer, have urged conservatives to come up with a conservationist environmental agenda that competes with the anti-business, anti-people ideology of left-wing environmentalists. Smith has certainly been far more anti-statist and pro-free market in his approach to the environment than liberals. Environmental preservation is a key issue in the wilderness-heavy Granite State.

Let us not forget Smith's passionate advocacy of a ban on partial-birth abortion, steadfast commitment to veterans and national defense and strenuous opposition to unconstitutional foreign adventures like the Kosovo intervention. Do these not merit more conservative consideration than his stand on oil drilling in Alaska? Smith has most recently been pushing for further tax reductions, school choice and allowing pilots to secure planes by exercising their Second Amendment rights in the cockpit. This constitutes a leftward lurch?

Many Republicans are abandoning Smith simply because they believe he cannot win. This seems to be a self-fulfilling, even self-defeating, prophecy. Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen will be a formidable opponent in the general election. But the polls in this race have been all over the map, even when different independent pollsters have been claiming to use similar samples (likely voters versus registered voters, etc.). For example, an April University of New Hampshire poll of 237 likely GOP voters showed Sununu beating Smith 59 percent to 30 percent while a Becker poll of 241 likely GOP voters showed them tied at 39 percent each. The most recent Becker poll shows Smith ahead by one point. Trial heats against Shaheen have also had varied results. It may be worthwhile to not make a fetish of polls in this race.

None of this is to suggest that Sununu is not himself a committed conservative and effective legislator. On some issues, he is in fact better than Smith. On others, Smith is either better or has shown more leadership even when their votes on the final legislation have been identical. But most political organizations have an incumbents' policy for a reason. They assume that the best way to insure that officeholders remain loyal to their respective causes is to reward that loyalty with consistent support.

Bob Smith has his share of flaws. But his record is one that on balance deserves conservative support. Consistently conservative legislators are in short supply. It does not seem wise to turn on the ones we have because they can be eccentric or hold primaries to pit them against each other. A younger generation of conservatives could profitably learn from their elders rather than simply devouring them.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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