Ellen Craswell’s decision to abandon the party she once tried to carry into the governor’s mansion could be the start of a major Republican schism, some conservative activists predict.
But others who share Craswell’s frustrations with the Republican Party aren’t ready to leave it. They believe they can do more to change the GOP, and the country, by working within the party.
Craswell, a former state senator who ran for governor in 1996, found herself with the dilemma facing many other conservative Christians.
They want change faster than the party that controls Congress and the Legislature - but not the White House or the governor’s mansion can deliver.
They want restrictions on abortion, changes in public schools and a smaller government.
“We believe principle has to come before party,” said Craswell, who announced Wednesday that she and her husband Bruce are joining the American Heritage Party.
That’s the state chapter of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which has a platform covering many of the issues important to conservative Christians. It opposes abortion, euthanasia and the “New World Order,” and would abolish the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve and government welfare programs.
“When the Republican Party wants to be a big tent, it wants to be all things to all people,” she said.
In Spokane, Jim Anderson - founder of the anti-abortion group Lifeline Ministries - said he supported Craswell’s move. He said he and others came to politics in the early 1980s, frustrated with the disintegrating social fabric of America.
“We thought that the Republican Party was the place we could call home,” he said. “That’s no longer the case.
“You’ve got the Democrats driving the truck over the cliff at 100 mph and the Republicans going over at 30.”
Republican leaders across the nation face possible defections from conservative Christians.
Earlier this month, James Dobson, whose Focus on the Family radio program draws 5 million listeners daily, met with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders in Washington, D.C.
Before the meeting, Dobson seemed ready to abandon the Republicans and take as many followers with him as possible.
He sent Gingrich a letter outlining priorities he thought were important to his followers. He said the government should stop spending money on issues and organizations he considers a threat to healthy families, including Planned Parenthood, the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, fetal tissue research and programs that distribute birth control devices.
Dobson emerged from the meeting with a wait-and-see attitude, said Paul Hetrick, a vice president at Focus on the Family.
Not all conservative Christians are moving toward giving up on the Republican Party - at least not yet.
Jeff Kemp, whose Washington Family Council researches issues and lobbies for laws to help families, understands why frustrations are rising.
“Part of it is legitimate, but part of it is due to some misunderstanding of the give-and-take and compromise that is part of politics,” he said.
Kemp, a retired Seattle Seahawks quarterback, is the son of former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp. But he’s not directly tied to the Republican Party because of his organization’s nonprofit tax status, and sees both sides of the debate.
“I remind people that politics is only one-quarter of the equation,” he said. “Cultural change really occurs on a local level through community networks.”
Jim Robinson, a party activist who helped coordinate Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in Spokane, also understands the frustration.
Some Republicans, he said, “will say one thing to get elected,” then vote another way once in office.
Robinson said he’s thought about leaving the GOP, but decided against it: “I really don’t feel called to do that. I feel I should work for change from within.”
“Be patient” is the message from GOP leaders and some Christian conservatives.
State GOP Chairman Dale Foreman acknowledges that only modest progress has been made on some of the conservative Christians’ key issues. The state House passed a ban on a late-term abortion procedure called “partial birth,” but the Senate did not. The size of government is growing less quickly, but not shrinking.
But splitting conservatives between two parties won’t improve that record, and could change the balance of power in Olympia, he said.
Craswell said American Heritage Party members won’t shun all Republicans, only those who don’t agree with their basic principles.
The party is looking to field candidates in a handful of races in which a moderate Republican faces a moderate or liberal Democrat.
That means they will likely hand that race to Democrats, Foreman said.
Craswell argued that three-way races could split the votes enough to elect some American Heritage candidates who will work with like-minded Republicans on their key issues.
Political observers say that’s unlikely. Jeff Kemp notes this is a two-party system.
“History’s littered with people who’ve gone the third party route,” said Brett Bader, a consultant on GOP campaigns.
But American Heritage members are unswayed. History is also littered with the Whig Party, which was one of the nation’s two dominant parties until the 1850s, when it failed to take a stand against slavery, said Doug Simpson, a conservative activist from Spokane who has joined the fledgling party.
“This is a movement about conservatism,” Simpson said. “We’ve heard that ‘Work within the party’ speech before. They control all the party mechanisms and nothing happens.”
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