by Rod D. Martin
August 29, 2002

DENVER – The conservative activists who gathered here earlier this month for the National Federation of Republican Assemblies board meeting look like their party. They are pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Pledge of Allegiance. They think high taxes and big government are bad and that God is good, that Washington should be weak but that America should be strong.

They are a pretty normal bunch of Republicans. And they’re fighting for the soul of their party.

“Anytime the grassroots have a say, we win overwhelmingly,” says Richard Engle, NFRA national director from Oklahoma. “But the liberals want to stop that any way they can.”

Engle is right on both counts. Except in the northeast, the Republican Party’s membership is almost entirely composed of conservatives and their libertarian kin. Assuming they turn out their people, they almost always win at conventions and caucuses, as well as in “closed” primaries (i.e., those primaries where Democrats aren’t allowed to “cross over”).

Moreover, despite a seemingly chronic inability to develop a consistent message or to play well with others (i.e., build coalitions), conservatives have made impressive gains over the past generation. When Goldwater lead his revolutionary charge in 1964, “RINOs” – conservative activists’s term for liberals, or “Republicans In Name Only” – had run the party since before the New Deal. There was no Christian Right, no powerful gun lobby, no pro-life movement worthy of the name.

All of that has changed. The Christian Right alone is so pivotal that, at one point in the 1990s, Christian Coalition members by themselves represented almost 40% of the party’s activists. Even the Christian Coalition’s implosion hasn’t affected that trend. According to a decade-long study recently released by Campaigns and Elections magazine, the Christian Right fully controls over a third of all state Republican parties, and holds a powerful state committee minority in 81% of the rest.

The Christian Right is far from the only flavor of conservatives that make up the party; and what little ground conservatives do not hold belongs mostly to the small group of non-ideological “Yellow Dog” Republicans. Yet despite all this, the left is alive and well in the Republican Party. And like its Democrat counterparts, it is better organized, better lead, and tremendously better at taking and holding power.

Dislodging these leftists from the party’s power centers is the NFRA’s raison d’être. Starting with the California Republican Assembly, founded in the 1930s by an earlier generation of conservative Young Turks, the Republican Assembly movement has spread across the country in recent years as conservatives have watched their numbers repeatedly stifled by a handful of liberal insiders. The CRA’s successes range from the upset nominations of Ronald Reagan and (more recently) Bill Simon for governor of California to the complete domination of the California Republican Party organization for most of the 1990s. It’s no wonder that activists elsewhere have embraced their “shadow party” model: create a side-by-side “Republican Assembly” for every Republican precinct, city, county and state committee in America, with the aim of taking over the corresponding party organs and the national party as well.

The potential is tremendous, particularly in overcoming one of conservatism’s weakness in coalition building. “There’s only so much Eagle Forum and Right to Life and Right to Work and the NRA can do without blowing their tax status,” one prominent NFRA board member says privately, “but if we share membership, the RA can do the political work – inside the party and out – that the 501(c)(3)s can’t, even though it’s exactly the same people. And once you get that started, the RA is the perfect vehicle for building the coalition we need to win.”

It’s a good plan – the sort of thing Democrats have done for decades – and it comes not a moment too soon. As Engle points out, Republicans have historically been the only open, “democratic” party: no loyalty oaths, no whites-only primaries, nor any of the other impediments to grassroots control the Democrats have virtually patented.

Yet that distinction is slipping away. Republicans recently changed their rules to add “superdelegates” to their convention: 83 unelected people who will help decide the presidential nomination without accountability to any primary, caucus or convention. In 2000, a similar system in the Democratic Party required Bill Bradley to win an impossible 2/3 of the popular vote nationally just to pull even with Al Gore in convention delegates: the unelected insiders, almost unanimously for Gore, controlled 25% of the delegates before a single primary vote was cast.

Conservatives will have to turn back this tide of growing elitist control if they are ever to nominate another Ronald Reagan, much less fundamentally change America. The left is at its best when it’s rigging the rules of the game. The NFRA is gamely standing in the gap; but it needs warriors, and fast.