Polar Campaigning

Centrism is smart presidential politics. But it's ideological zeal that dominates the state electoral scene these days.
by | June 2004
 

Suzanna Hupp didn't set out to become a factor in this year's presidential campaign. Her one goal is to secure the passage of laws in all 50 states permitting citizens to carry concealed weapons. But she and others like her may prove vitally important in presidential politics before the year is over.

Hupp's effort is a highly personal one. One day 13 years ago, she was dining with her parents in a restaurant in Killeen, Texas, when a gunman rammed his truck into the building and opened fire. He killed 23 people, including Hupp's father and mother. She had a gun with her that day, but she had left it in her car, fearing she might lose her chiropractic license if she violated the state's ban on bringing the gun into the restaurant.

Since the Killeen tragedy, Hupp has been on a non-stop crusade for changes in concealed-weapons laws. Texas was only the beginning; some 46 of the 50 states now have laws permitting citizens to carry weapons in public under most circumstances. This year Hupp is working to bring the last four states into the fold: Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

As one might expect, Hupp has received some high-powered help. Individual zealots have been joined by an array of organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to a Web-based group called Packing.org. They have combined to make concealed-carry campaigns white-hot issues in Kansas and Wisconsin, among other places, and have led to fierce battles over gubernatorial vetoes.

Inevitably, presidential politics has become part of the argument. Just as strategists for George W. Bush and John F. Kerry are trying to push issues toward the middle to win over critical swing voters, they find themselves tussling with state-based groups pushing toward the ideological poles. As these groups champion such causes as gun rights, tax freezes and the definition of marriage, the presidential candidates will find it harder to attract moderate voters.

For Kerry, perhaps the most obvious risk is getting his campaign entangled in the state-level battles over gay marriage. Because of the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the issue is likely to heat up just as the senator tries to escape the "Massachusetts liberal" label. More than 35 states are now enmeshed in the gay-rights debate and legislative and constitutional amendment procedures.

With the issue continuing to churn in Massachusetts, the question of what marriage should mean is spilling over into swing states such as Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. No matter how hard he tries, Kerry may find it impossible to avoid tough debate questions about an issue that has, after all, traditionally been a matter for governors and state legislators, not presidents. Any answer Kerry might give, however, carries the potential to push away swing voters he needs to win.

Bush faces serious dilemmas coming from the opposite direction--from gun-rights advocates and anti-tax crusaders. Dick Armey, the former majority leader of the U.S. House, is using his group. Citizens for a Sound Economy, to mobilize conservative grass-roots organizations to fight for a freeze on state and local taxes. The movement is especially active in Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin-- crucial swing states.

The focus of activists in all these places, like that of Suzanna Hupp, is on state rather than national politics. In Wisconsin, for example, the concealed-weapons, defense of marriage, and tax-freeze issues are part of a conservative agenda designed to help the GOP defeat Democratic Governor Jim Doyle in 2006. Republicans are calculating that a push on all three issues would force Doyle either to cave in or to defend himself awkwardly on three emotionally charged questions. Either way, they hope, they would cement Republican control of the state.

In the meantime, however, the campaigns are forcing Bush and Kerry strategists to make some delicate decisions. The more that state party leaders and activists choose to play on the margins this year, the more difficult it will be for either of the major presidential candidates to cling to the middle.

It adds up to a subtle difference from the way state and presidential politics have related to each other in most recent years. Since the Clinton presidency, state and national affairs have gradually moved in separate orbits. Party leaders regularly complained that Clinton focused too much on his own reelection and paid little attention to shoring up Democratic congressional candidates. Lately, state party officials have focused more energy on their ongoing state battles than on presidential campaigns that often seem to them disconnected from political reality.

This year, however, the presidential campaigns will have to shout to be heard above an already strong gale. Some of the state party leaders they need most are preoccupied with those battles. Some are busy rowing in the opposite direction from the way Bush and Kerry are trying to move their parties. With another close election shaping up, state-level issues and tensions could prove surprisingly important in mobilizing the faithful--and swinging the states on which the election will depend.

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