“Republican Wing of the Republican Party”
by Nancy Shepherdson
They call themselves members of the "Republican Wing of the Republican Party.” In January, delegates to the national board meeting of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies gathered in the posh St. Louis suburb of Frontenac. For all the success Republicans have been having, the group still feels besieged.
"We're like Eisenhower in Europe," Richard Engle, president of the federation, told his audience of about 200. "We're isolated, attacked on all fronts. We need a beachhead where we can find natural allies, where we can build on our strengths and give hope to our allies, like Ike did. Unlike Ike, we can't look on a map and see where our territories are, and we don't have a unifying leader, not even George Bush. My suggestion to you is that the Normandy of the culture war is the Republican Party. The RNC is not a conservative organization. And neither are our local parties."
Engle urged on his faithful, as well as members of the Eagle Forum and a group calling itself the Constitutional Coalition. "The battle is on for control of our party-no committeeman, no chair should be a moderate," he said. "Into the night they shall go because they are not our allies, they are our enemies."
Engle is a former city councilman in Bethany, a suburb of Oklahoma City, and president of BellWest America, LLC, which produces telephone directories. "Frankly," he continued, "the GOP majority in Congress is really empty for me. You'll love this: One [Republican] Congressman told me that he voted for AIDS drugs for Africa because Bush wanted it. Good Lord. His constituents didn't!"
The federation is an offshoot of the California Republican Assembly, which was founded in 1932. That group was surprisingly successful inserting conservative Republicans into all levels of the party's infrastructure. Emboldened by their successful takeover of the state party, the Californians decided to go national in 1996. The National Federation was then led by printing salesman Stephen Frank, a former leader of the California group, who traveled the country encouraging disgruntled Republicans to set up state affiliates. Engle claims twenty-seven state affiliates, and 65,000 people are on the group's e-mail distribution list, although far fewer are active dues-paying members.
Those who are include old warhorses like Phyllis Schlafly, perennial president of the anti-feminist Eagle Forum, and conservative lightning rod Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. That's the same Grover Norquist who has likened having moderates in the Republican Party to selling "rat-head cola." In other words, if you noticed a rat head bobbing around in your soda, you'd never buy that brand again.
On its website, the group advertises for a "RINO Hunters Club," which will "root out and hunt down" what it calls Republicans In Name Only. (There is even a picture of a weathered rhinoceros head as the club's emblem.)
One of the core beliefs listed on its site is "that all human rights are granted by God, not government, and that government exists primarily to protect the God-given rights of its citizens.” It also says that "the Constitution was written to govern a moral and religious people, and it is being destroyed by those who are neither." Other beliefs include protection of the unborn, upholding the traditional family, and supporting free market capitalism.
The federation's goal is nothing less than a complete takeover of the Republican Party by "pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-Pledge of Allegiance" forces who believe that "God is good, that Washington should be weak, but that America should be strong," said Eastern Region Vice President Rod D. Martin, former staffer for Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and founder of Vanguard PAC, which is designed to create "a farm team of activists and candidates ready and able to take leadership."
Nevertheless, the federation is not all about wacky ideas. Past resolutions adopted by the national board include encouraging school boards to opt out of No Child Left Behind, limiting the USA Patriot Act, and opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is "very aware" of the federation, says Joe Conn, a spokesperson for the group. Unlike other far right organizations, it is "more successful in controlling party apparatus" at the state level, says Conn. "It's easy to do that. You can control many local party meetings where just a handful of people show up.” The federation, he says, "is an organized movement to move the Republican Party as far to the right as they can in as many states as they can.” He adds that it may gain power as the Christian Coalition continues to ebb.
According to federation calculations, no more than 30 percent of the Republican Party's leaders are as conservative as they should be, "measured by their views on the issues.” So the group does what it can to promote conservative candidates.
At their national board meeting, delegates heard about one particular assembly success story which they were urged to emulate: the U.S. Senate victory of Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who wants to execute doctors who provide abortions. Key to victory in that tight race? We are told in conspiratorial tones that the Oklahoma chapter's 501(c)(3) Education Fund was used to purchase cable airtime for the anti-Kerry video Stolen Honor three days before the November election. Head of the Oklahoma delegation, Tim Pope, a former state legislator from Mustang, helped provide twenty minutes of on-air commentary about values after the film concluded.
They did not explicitly recommend votes for any candidate, though, in order to skirt IRS rules against the involvement of educational foundations in the political campaigns of individuals. "We talked about Kerry's war record in Vietnam, instead of saying that John Kerry was a piece of trash," Pope said to a laughing crowd. "You can become agents of the assembly and set up your own education fund-and I urge you to do so."
It is Pope's belief that enough Oklahoma voters were motivated to come out against Kerry by the movie that Coburn was able to win the Senate seat. Coburn has a testimonial to the federation on its homepage: "You are truly a force for renewal in the Republican Party."
Engle recognizes the thin line the group needs to walk. "It's amazing what you can do with an education fund-as long as you tell the truth," he said. "You can put out voter guides, sponsor debates, and so forth.
And you can raise corporate donations in unlimited amounts.” Later he added a cautionary note, "We need to spend all the money on appropriate projects . . . otherwise we could go to jail.” Engle reported that there were no legal challenges to the use of the federation's money in the Oklahoma Senate race "although there were complaints filed with the television station that were not followed through on."
Others who spoke at the conference also expressed deep frustration at the hesitancy of George W. Bush to forge full speed ahead in the culture war. "We are not a subset of the Bush Administration," said Schlafly, dressed in pink tweed Chanel, with her still-blonde hair piled high on her seventy-five-year-old head. "I'm glad Bush won, but the issues that drove people to support him seem to be the issues he's not talking much about. These need to be the issues we push in the next four years.” Schlafly predicted, "the Bush Administration plans to put women into combat because there aren't enough men [to fight the war] in Iraq.” Here she was standing on one of the planks of the federation. "Only men, not women, will serve in combat," it states. "Women shall not be drafted into the armed forces."
Another major plank is banning abortion for any reason, even to save the life of the mother. "The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed," the group says in its statement of principles. Support for banning abortions came up in surprising ways at the board meeting. When I complained about the lousy food during dinner, Cassandra, a matronly federation delegate from Tennessee, set me straight about the cause of the gastronomic failure. "There's a worker shortage," she said. "Forty-two percent of the U.S. population isn't here-they were aborted. When you look at NASA photos of the Earth [at night] from space, most of it is dark!"
Activist judges also came in for repeated drubbings. Early in the weekend, at the National Education Conference supported by the federation, U.S. Representative Todd Akin, Republican from the Second District of Missouri, gave a speech in which he stated his case against judges who would preserve the separation of church and state. The Constitution, he said, "never mentions the word separation. This is the religious and political founding document of the United States. Can our liberties be secure if we remove the context that these gifts are from God?"
Akin went on to blame the judicially ordered removal of the Ten Commandments from public schools for the Columbine massacre and similar tragedies. Later, as he was leaving, he talked with a group of delegates near the elevators, who asked him how other members of Congress could be persuaded to think as he does. He told of a black Congressman who had accused him of not treating the Supreme Court with respect. "I told him that I come from Missouri where the Dred Scott case came down and said blacks aren't people. Therefore, I believe that you can't always respect the Supreme Court. The Congressman didn't know what to say," he told the admiring group. "I kicked ass."
Also at the education conference, self-proclaimed "reformed commie" David Horowitz riled up the crowd with his case for why God-fearing Republicans have a moral duty to take over government. Bearded and rumpled, he seemed the antithesis of the buttoned-up conservatives in the audience, except for his zeal in condemning the "other side.” He points to his latest book, Unholy Alliance, for evidence that hate is rising in America-that is, the hatred of movement conservatives by progressives and moderates.
"Why do they hate us? They believe they can redeem the world so there will be no poverty, no bigotry," he says with a dismissive wave of both hands. "If there is no afterlife for them, this is all they have to give their lives meaning. That's why they hate you."
After the conclusion of Horowitz's talk, and the standing ovation that followed, a teacher from St. Eouis, fingering her flag scarf and crucifix, stood with tears in her eyes. Finally, she shook her head and whispered to me, "That really helps me understand why the administration made me take down my Twin Towers poster with the psalm 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of death' from my classroom. Isn't that awful?"
We also heard about sneaky ways to get "intelligent design" (creation-ism) into textbooks from Neal Frey, who helped get the job done in Texas, aided by a state school board packed with conservatives. "Those five religious members on the board are saints," he said.
Delegates attended Sunday chapel services led by the pastor pro-tern, former Missouri congressional candidate and former state legislator Bill Federer, who ran for Richard Gephardt's seat. The sermon was by Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide, "a ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles," its website says. Baehr said he wants to bring back the Hays Office, which enforced "voluntary" censorship in Hollywood for decades.
On the way out, a white-haired lady sidled over to me and whispered: "Not much of a church service, was it?” But Engle appreciated it. "Ted Baehr was a blessing in our Sunday chapel service," said Engle later. "Some of our board members who had heard Ted before commented to me that they now have some hope that Hollywood's output of movies can be cleaned up because of efforts like his."
After church, several federation leaders --including Engle -- took a trolley ride to the St. Louis Arch, and the talk became franker. A delegate from Oregon disagreed with the contention that all doctors, like her husband, were in favor of damage caps in malpractice cases. "When I was at Johns Hopkins, a lot of them believed in abortions and all that," she said softly, "and a lot of them were Jewish."
A little later, we passed the Missouri State Capitol building. "That's where the Dred Scott case was decided," announced a white-haired veteran of the group to no one in particular. "You know, there was only one Senator who didn't know who Dred Scott was-Carol Moseley Braun. It's sure amazing to me that she became a Senator. She was more like an ape."
Cheril Clifford, who moved to Oregon five years ago, complained that "it's hard to know who to trust" before you reveal your politics, especially in "the People's Republic of Oregon."
Barbara Blewster, president of the Arizona chapter, showed Clifford a pocket card she hands out when recruiting door-to-door that helps reassure people of the reasonableness of their goals. Support for the Constitution. Religious freedom. States' rights. Education in “enduring truths.” Chimed in another delegate: "And we're not going to quit until the Lord comes back."
The board was excited about its next big event: the federation's convention in September in Scottsdale. Norquist is scheduled to be one of the speakers. The topic of the convention: "Turning Up the Heat on the Left."
Nancy Shepherdson is a freelance writer in Barrington, Illinois, who writes and speaks frequently on the religious right.
Source: Shepherdson, Nancy (2005, May) Republican Wing of the Republican Party. The Progressive, 65, 30-33.