Conservative setbacks in Election 2000

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 13, 2000

Whatever the outcome of the presidential race following the endless Florida recount, it is already clear that the 2000 election did not go well for conservatives. Close races across the country indicate how deeply divided Americans are along partisan and ideological lines, yet the right came up short in a number of key contests.

Republicans will remain in control of the House of Representatives and likely the Senate, although by diminished margins. The composition of the Republican majority is such that conservatives will be less firmly in control than at any point since the 1994 elections. This is a distressing prospect since the Congress was already becoming increasingly lax about controlling the growth of government. Moderate to liberal Republicans like Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter and Christopher Shays will hold the balance of power and become the most influential members of the national legislature. Continued GOP control of the Senate will henceforth be tied to Strom Thurmond's longevity.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton amazingly won election to the US Senate, handily defeating US Rep. Rick Lazio. "Amazingly" because she had never previously held elective office, was not from New York, has publicly demonstrated herself to be a disreputable woman of an authoritarian mindset for the past eight years and owes her fame and political fortune to one of the most despicable men to ever hold the presidency. Given the political demographics of the Empire State and her manifest advantages in the campaign, her victory really wasn't anything amazing. In fact, it is amazing conservative Republicans were able to hold out hope of defeating her for so long.

The first lady benefited from being able to fly from Washington to New York at taxpayer's expense as well as from fawning media coverage. Her biggest stroke of luck was the implosion of New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani, who was forced out of the Senate race by prostate cancer and marital problems. Lazio was never able to match Guliani in stature and was entirely to dependent on being the anti-Hillary to win votes. He did not help himself by focusing almost exclusively on Middle Eastern affairs toward the tail end of the campaign, as if he were running against Ehud Barak rather than Hillary. Lazio did have an ambitious pro-growth tax cut plan and a concrete record of public service on behalf of New Yorkers, but he obscured all that with his constant references to his pro-Israel and anti-Hillary credentials.

Lazio was also unable to compensate for George W. Bush's poor 35 percent showing in the state. He did run ahead of Bush by polling 42 percent, but was unable to find a sufficiently large number of independents willing to vote for both Al Gore and himself. He only was able to hold onto a 50 percent to 47 percent lead over Hillary in the Republican stronghold of upstate New York, hardly enough to overcome her huge advantage in New York City. On top of this, Lazio's House seat went Democratic, as a conservative third-party insurgency siphoned off enough votes to prevent the election of the first black woman Republican to Congress in history.

Sen. John Ashcroft

While Senate GOP liberals Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jim Jeffords of Vermont were reelected by wide margins and Lincoln Chaffee held onto his father's Senate seat, key conservative incumbents were defeated. Sen. John Ashcroft's defense of the family and limited government earned him a reputation as one of the nation's leading conservative officeholders, with many on the right speaking of him as presidential material. Ashcroft had even considered a run for the GOP nod this year.

But he found himself locked in a tight reelection fight against popular Democratic Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. As the heated campaign was coming to a close, polls showed Ashcroft building a slim lead over his opponent - until the country was jarred by Carnahan's tragic death in a private plane crash. Jane Carnahan, the governor's widow, said she would accept a gubernatorial appointment to her late husband's seat, which resulted in a sympathy vote that changed the outcome of an election. Ashcroft narrowly lost the race and Carnahan's coattails allowed Democrat Eric Holden to upset another fine conservative, Congressman Jim Talent (an unsung hero of the welfare reform debate), in the governor's race.

Despite the dubious legal nature of a corpse winning election to the US Senate, the equally questionable ruling by a Democratic judge to extend polling beyond the prescribed hours in order to boost Democratic turnout and the shameless exploitation of Carnahan's death by Missouri Democrats, Ashcroft graciously conceded rather than fight the results. Perhaps he should send a memo to the vice president.

Another bitter pill for conservatives to swallow was the narrow defeat of Sen. Spencer Abraham by liberal Rep. Debbie Staenow in the Michigan Senate race. Abraham was the leading supply-sider in a Congress that no longer had the likes of Jack Kemp, a seasoned political veteran who had chaired the Michigan Republican Party and coordinated its revival alongside John Engler. In addition to being a reliable vote for removing trade barriers, rescinding regulations and protecting the unborn, he was a leader on school choice, welfare reform and pro-growth tax cuts. That Spence Abraham did not survive this close challenge (he led in most polls, but was also well below the crucial 50 percent mark for incumbents) was deeply disappointing. Sen. William Roth of Delaware, the man who co-authored the famed pro-growth Kemp-Roth tax cut that eventually became the basis of the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, also went down to defeat.

Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican whose legislative resume includes work on tax cuts, real welfare reform and a stint as one of the managers of Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, fell short in his bid to succeed conservative Sen. Connie Mack. Bush's apparent Florida victory was sadly not enough to put this worthy legislator over the top. Nor were Bush's coattails sufficient to aide Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg, who unsuccessfully fought efforts to invalidate his state's partial-birth abortion ban as unconstitutional, in his close race against former Gov. Ben Nelson. Ruth Dwyer, leader of the anti-tax "Take Back Vermont" coalition, failed in her bid to unseat Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Democrat who signed civil unions into law, by a depressing 51 percent to 38 percent. The exodus of Massachusetts liberals continued to destroy New Hampshire, as that Live Free or Die State narrowly reelected Gov. Jean Shaheen, despite her unconscionable refusal to rule out a state income tax, over the great citizen-legislator Gordon Humphrey.

There were some bright spots. Rick Santorum soundly defeated Ron Klink in his reelection bid, running ahead of Bush in Pennsylvania despite his stronger conservative stands. John Ensign will succeed Democrat Richard Bryan in the Senate from Nevada. George Allen finally defeated Chuck Robb. And of course, if Gore will let him have it, Bush did legitimately win the Electoral College and may ultimately still prevail in the national popular vote (some 2.5 million absentee ballots, which tend to favor Republicans, remain uncounted, as Gore's lead has dwindled to less than 200,000 votes, or 48.3 percent to 48.1 percent).

John Corizine

But a President Bush will face a Senate where Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer are joined by John Corizine, Debbie Staenow and Hillary Clinton. While we may have averted Dick Gephardt as House speaker and committee chairmanships being dominated by members of the House Progressive Caucus, Tom DeLay will have literally no margin for error in that chamber. Those who would limit government are going to be sorely tested by the new Congress despite intact GOP majorities.

Conservatives did well enough to prove we need not bury our heads in the sand, but we must do better than we did this time out. Our work is cut out for us.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to

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