Conservative Bret Schundler's upset primary victory over Bob Franks is awfully encouraging for the conservative cause.
Consider some of the factors going against Schundler: New Jersey is hardly considered a conservative state, nor is its Republican Party particularly conservative. The entire state's Republican Party establishment was behind Franks and opposed to Schundler. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund details how the party bosses greased all the skids for Mr. Franks, one of their own, by delaying the primary and changing the rules to enhance his campaign war chest. Within a few weeks of the election, everyone – including many respectable conservative publications – had written off Schundler's chances.
The establishment message was as arrogant as it usually is, namely that conservatives aren't electable because they are extremists. As the Republican establishment candidate, Franks dutifully displayed the establishment attitude, especially in the election-eve debate.
It seemed obvious that Franks was trying to make the election a referendum on the abortion issue, apparently confident that as a pro-choicer the issue would work in his favor.
Franks attempted to portray Schundler as an autocrat who was willing to force his opinions down the throats of his constituents by advocating that abortion be outlawed. Schundler responded to the contrary that he would not coerce his will on the public, but try to convince a majority that his position was preferable.
To the militant anti-life crowd, however, merely advocating legislation to restrict abortion in ways permissible under existing Supreme Court precedent is blasphemous against the women's sacrosanct "right to choose." Franks' tactic was the same used by Senate Democrats, who pressured John Ashcroft for a commitment that, if confirmed as attorney general, he wouldn't use his office to advocate the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
So we come away with several lessons from this election. Some political analysts are saying that Schundler was a more attractive candidate and ran a shrewder campaign, both of which are true. But it's more than that.
One lesson is that in Republican circles at least, even in liberal Northeastern states, the abortion issue is not necessarily a winner for the pro-abortionists. Conversely, it is not a loser for the pro-lifers.
The election also affirms that unapologetic, clear-speaking conservatives can win elections by running on conservative ideas. In response, establishment Republicans will say that the true test will be in the general election and that a conservative, like Schundler, is not electable. Do you remember when the same thing was being said about George Bush's prospects in the general election, during and after John McCain's unsuccessful primary challenge?
Moderate and liberal Republicans, with the aid and comfort of the liberal press, contend that only moderate and liberal Republicans can win general elections when the opposite is closer to being true. The further George Bush, the elder, tacked away from the right, the worse he did in the polls and in the elections. Similarly, moderate Bob Dole never had a chance. After all, why should moderate-to-liberal voters vote for Republicans when they can get more authentic versions in the Democratic Party?
The truth is that establishment Republicans have always taken the position, in effect, that Republican candidates should offer voters less ideological contrast from their Democratic opponents. And, they've always been wrong. Although this is nearly too obvious to warrant mention, it needs to be said. There is no point in having different parties if their candidates don't stand for different things.
Schundler's Democratic opponent, Jim McGreevey, is already echoing the words of Bob Franks: Schundler is too conservative on education, abortion and guns to prevail among New Jersey voters in the general election.
Well, let's just see about that. Mr. McGreevey is simply another on the long list of Democrats and liberal Republicans to paint mainstream conservatism as inherently extreme, unable to appeal to anyone outside the far right wing of the Republican Party.
The problem with this theory is that it doesn't square with already established facts. Schundler is a third-term mayor in one of the most Democratic cities in New Jersey (only 6 percent of the city's voters are Republicans). This should be enough to send shivers down McGreevey's spine.
Schundler is living proof that articulate conservatives can build big tents even in liberal states without abandoning their principles. Just think of the national implications.