OPINION: Corporate stooges in blue collar clothing

Will the populists of today exploit this to their political advantage?


IN 1977, Marvin Durning (left) faced Republican John E. Cunningham for Secretary of Transportation in Washington’s Seventh District. – Denver Post photo

In 1977, acclaimed journalist John Judis recounted a Seattle congressional race that might sound familiar. Republican John E. Cunningham won by appealing to right-wing populism — the new conservatism being pioneered by the likes of Pat Buchanan — while distancing himself from the GOP’s close identification with big corporations.

Meanwhile, infighting among Seattle Democrats did the rest. Judis concluded the race might be telling of future divisions within the Republican Party, predicting a schism between right-wing populists and staunch free-marketers. A fissure certainly now seems apparent, but so far, we haven’t seen it crack.

A Seattle congressional race has breathed new life into the Republicans’ sagging spirits and signaled danger ahead for the Democratic party.

Washington’s Seventh District has been called “Boeing country” because most of Boeing’s 47,000 Seattle-area workers live there. Since it was apportioned in 1958, a Republican has won only once, and since 1964, Democrat Brock Adams had held the seat — in 1976 he won by a three-to-one margin.

In the May 17 election for the vacant seat created by Adams’ appointment as Carter’s Secretary of Transportation, Marvin Durning, a liberal Democrat, faced John E. Cunningham, a rightwing Republican.

It looked like an easy win for Durning, who led Cunningham two to one in pre-election polls. Besides getting expected support from labor and Washington’s big-name Democrats, Durning also got the support of Seattle’s two major dailies.

But through a campaign that drew on money and experience from conservatives around the country and went after Durning’s blue-collar constituency with a brand of rightwing populism, Cunningham scored the upset of the year. He garnered 54 percent of the vote to Durning’s 44.

Rightwing money played a role in Cunningham’s win. Altogether, the national rightwing network raised an astonishing $250,000, permitting Cunningham to outspend his opponent by two to one, and making the race the most expensive congressional contest in Washington history.

Richard Viguerie, the Washington D.C. super-fundraiser for the far right, put together a direct-mail appeal from his network.

Such organizations as the Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the Virginia-based National Conservative Political Action Committee came through with the maximum allowable $10,000.

The network also brought in organizers: Merrill Jacobs from the National Conservative Political Action Committee and Mike Poling and Bruce Anderson from the Republican National Committee.

Armed with $250,000, these professionals devised a campaign that assumed a low overall voter turnout but concentrated on identifying Cunningham supporters and getting them to the polls on election day. No attempt to affect the overall turnout was made. (Republicans call this strategy the “Kasten plan” after its successful use by Wisconsin congressman Robert Kasten.)

The plan worked on election day. Overall turnout was an abysmal 30 percent, but in Cunningham-identified strongholds it was significantly higher than elsewhere.

Cunningham’s political approach was also essential to his strong showing. For several years, “new right populists” like former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and Buffalo congressman Jack F. Kemp had been calling on Republicans to shed their image as the party of business to use “pocketbook issues” (in Kemp’s words) to go after the blue collar vote.

With the poor Republican showing in November, these sentiments found favor as well from Ronald Reagan (“The new Republican party I envision will not, and cannot be one limited to the country club/big business image that it is burdened with today”) and with the newly appointed Republican National Chairman William Brock (“Too many voters see us as … a barely disguised front for big corporations…”)

Cunningham adopted the “new right” approach and directly challenged Durning’s support among blue-collar families. He made jobs “the number one issue.” He accused Durning of favoring defense cuts and environmental regulations that would deprive Washington workers of their jobs.

Cunningham, an ex-basketball star and businessman, portrayed himself as a self-made man with his roots in middle America and the Harvard-educated Durning as an Ivy League ‘lawyer whose real allegiance was to the Washington D.C. liberal establishment. With Durning on the defensive, hedging on past positions, Cunningham was at least able to neutralize Durning’s appeal among blue-collar workers.

But, according to Seattle Times political analyst Richard W. Larsen, the key to Cunningham’s victory was the divisions within the King County Democratic party between the “liberals” and the “conservatives.” These divisions date from the Vietnam war when local Democrats disagreed about Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war. Now they disagree about the arms race, environmental regulations, social programs, and the need for a state income tax.

Durning was a liberal, and in the primary he defeated the conservative candidate Martin Durkan. While the liberal Brock Adams had been able to hold together the party on election time, Durning was not.

According to Larsen, conservative Democrats quietly “spread the word” to support Cunningham. They assumed they could always win back the seat with the “right kind of democrat.“

In this respect, Cunningham’s win was more of a Democratic defeat than a Republican victory. It was similar to S.I. Hayakawa’s win last fall in California’s senatorial race, where Hayakawa’s opponent John Tunney could not unite California Democrats, or James Thompson’s win in Illinois’ governor race. (The same thing may happen in Virginia’s governor’s race this fall when quasi-populist Henry Howell, at the head of a divided Democratic party, faces Republican John Dalton.)

But whether Republican victory or Democratic defeat, the Seattle election is significant:

The division among Seattle’s Democrats, far from being atypical, runs right through the national party. A party that built its majorities on the promise of growing prosperity and on the crusade against communism, the Democrats find themselves hopelessly divided in the face of permanent recession and detente.

The Seattle election is another sign of the growing unpredictability and instability in American politics created by changed world conditions.

The development of “new right populism” in the Republican party is a response to the growing distrust Americans have of large corporations and of a party identified with their interests. But insofar as this response is purely opportunistic, it has a limited political future.

In Seattle, Cunningham had the issue of defense on which to peg his support for” workers’ jobs and welfare. He didn’t have to deal with such unpleasant subjects as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill or tax reform. Elsewhere, Republicans will not have such an easy time, and unless their opponent is as conservative as they are, will have difficulty maintaining their identification with the wage earner against the corporation.

It may be that in “new right populism” there are the seeds of further division and not unity within the Republican party. On one side will be those like Pat Buchanan who are already taking the logic of their position toward “populism” and away from “the right.” (Buchanan recently declared that “when it is a contest between Henry Ford and the United Auto-Workers, we’ve got to side with the working guy and his job.”)

On the other side will be the more conventional big business sympathizers in populist clothing like chairman Brock or Ronald Reagan, who will finally recoil before moving toward genuine populism.

By seeming to affirm the correctness of the new right populists, Cunningham’s victory may hasten that division within the party and bring still further instability to American two-party politics.

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