April 06, 2004,
Conservatives were a majority of the House Republican conference by the mid-1980s; they did not become a majority of the Senate Republican caucus until after the 1994 elections. Even those elections swept in at least as many conviction-less Republican hacks as they did conservative activists such as Rick Santorum and Spence Abraham.
The 2004 Senate Republican candidates are remarkably conservative. Indeed, it is almost certain that the Republican caucus will move rightward even if the party does not win seats this fall. The four seats that are most likely to be lost are currently held by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Peter Fitzgerald, Lisa Murkowski, and Arlen Specter. If Republicans merely make up for their losses elsewhere, it will be a win for conservatives.
What distinguishes the Republicans' 2004 candidates is not only how many conservatives they are fielding. It is remarkable how many smart, idealistic, policy-oriented conservatives have a serious chance of winning this year. Here are seven such candidates: Herman Cain, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Jack Ryan, Bob Schaeffer, Pat Toomey, and David Vitter. (They are running, respectively, in Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.) These candidates don't just have good voting records. They have fought for conservative advances on Social Security reform, health savings accounts, spending cuts, and free trade.
The 2002 Senate elections went very well for conservatives, but the potential in 2004 is in this respect greater. Norm Coleman, Elizabeth Dole, Jim Talent, and John Thune were all pretty conservative candidates. But they were, in general, not as conservative as the 2004 candidates mentioned above: Coleman was against drilling in Alaska, and Thune voted for campaign-finance reform.
A Senate could not be made up wholly of Pat Toomeys, and there are other kinds of conservatives whom the Senate could also use. Mac Collins, who is part of a three-man primary race with Cain and Johnny Isakson, would probably do a lot to help conservatives in the Senate if elected. So would Thune, who is running in South Dakota again. But these candidates would, if elected, do a lot to shake up the Senate.
I can't think of another election year in which as many conservatives ran strong campaigns. In 1992, Bruce Herschensohn of California stood out as the only conservative movement candidate running. (He lost.) In 1996, the great stand-outs were Al Salvi of Illinois and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas. (Salvi self-destructed that fall, while Hutchinson was elected.) A few conservative favorites ran in 1998, notably Fitzgerald in Illinois and Marc Neumann in Wisconsin. But Neumann ran as a budget-balancing protectionist rather than as a free-trading tax-cutter, and Fitzgerald proved so cautious as a senator that many conservatives felt disillusioned. George Allen was the great conservative success of 2000, an otherwise dismal year for conservatives in Senate elections.
If a few conservative standouts win, and a few more conventional conservative politicians win in places such as North Carolina and Florida, the Senate Republican caucus will look very different more conservative, and more hard-charging.
Some Republicans are disappointed about recruitment failures this year. Republicans haven't fielded strong challengers to Harry Reid or Byron Dorgan. It's always a shame to leave some on the table. But conservatives have done quite well out of recruitment this year. And the chance to put some of these candidates over the top this fall is one more reason for conservatives to hope that President Bush does well.