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Horse race

Abstract:

Sen Ben Nighthorse Campbell is a charismatic figure with celebrity status, but Scott McInnis believes he has a chance to win the Republican nomination. Campbell had a liberal voting record when he was a Democrat and does not have strong relationships in the Colorado Republican Party.

Full Text:

NO one will ever mistake Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell for a conservative; indeed, he has defeated a few conservatives in his time. Soon Colorado Republicans may be asked by national party leaders to help him vanquish yet another one.

For Campbell is now a Republican, having switched parties in 1995, and the irrepressible Rep. Scott McInnis, who represents much of western Colorado, appears prepared to challenge Campbell for the GOP nomination.

Given Campbell’s celebrity status as the only Indian in Congress, such a quest might appear suicidal. After all, the senator boasts by far the more colorful resume — not just rags to riches, orphanage to nation’s capital, but a story of remarkable achievement in several entirely different careers. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to admire the almost manic resolve that took this son of an immigrant mother and an alcoholic father into the ring as a member of the American judo team in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then on to the breeding of champion quarter horses and a highly lucrative career designing Indian jewelry.

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Campbell projects the don’t-crowd-me sort of libertarianism in his personal life that resonates with many Westerners. He skips photo-ops to ride with biker friends; sponsors legislation to lift the federal mandate for motorcycle helmets; attends a California bash to celebrate the end of a two-year parole for Hell’s Angel leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger. Campbell is no prettified package dreamed up by image consultants, and voters sense it.

The senator also sings in the old-time Western chorus on land and water issues. “As a Westerner,” he thundered at the 1996 GOP convention, “it is important to me that the Republican Party is the party that will protect private-property rights and your right to use the public lands . . . We will not let them take away our birthright.” This is no oratorical act. At a hearing last month, the senator dismissed the Sierra Club’s proposal to drain Lake Powell as a “certifiable nut idea.”

But McInnis is no kamikaze from the Right. He believes that however charismatic a figure Campbell may cut on the national stage, the senator is still just a fledgling Republican with little traction among party regulars back home. Although since Campbell switched parties his Senate votes have moved, quite perceptibly, to the right, he has continued periodically to defect from positions on which there is a virtual conservative consensus.

Not only did Campbell vote last year to raise the minimum wage, for example, and protect foreign-aid-funded abortions, he also has declared that the only problem with racial preferences is the fraud that follows in their wake. “The basic framework” of affirmative action, he maintains, “is OK.”

When he was a Democrat, his record was far more provocative. Campbell voted for the Clinton tax hike of 1993, praised the introduction of ClintonCare, and generally could be counted upon to smear anyone to the right, say, of George Bush as a “kook” or “extremist.” Indeed, insofar as Campbell has never been identified with any of the pressing concerns of the wave of Republicans who took over the Capitol in 1994 — welfare and tort reform, wholesale budget cuts, devolution of authority to the states, etc. — his decision to switch parties was, and remains, a puzzlement. Most political observers in Colorado assume Campbell’s motives were personal, based upon his estrangement from state Democrats such as Gov. Roy Romer and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, and his genuine regard for Republicans such as then-Sen. Hank Brown and, ironically, McInnis.

Indeed, Campbell’s voting record seems to be related as much to peer expectations as ideological principle. In his final two years as a Democrat, Campbell’s Senate votes earned an “F” and a “D” from the National Taxpayers Union. As a newly minted Republican in 1995, he suddenly picked up a “B.” This cavalier attitude toward political substance has been a Campbell hallmark since he first ran for office. He spent six years in the Colorado General Assembly, yet freely admitted to his biographer, Herman J. Viola, that “I did not really sponsor any significant legislation when I was in the state legislature.”

McInnis, on the other hand, is a straightforward, if somewhat soft-edged, conservative of long standing. His only eyebrow-raising association has been with National Republicans for Choice, and even there his pro-choice sentiments stop well short of a Christie Whitman – type militancy. “I say yes to parental notification,” he explained recently, “and no to late-term abortions.” He did back a partial-birth abortion ban — but then so did Sen. Campbell.

It is the differences between the two men, of course, that will most interest Republican voters. McInnis supports an end to racial preferences, has spent the past few years badgering the Immigration and Naturalization Service to scoop up more illegal aliens, and consistently racks up grades of “A” or “B” from the National Taxpayers Union. He positively reveled in the GOP House takeover in 1994, and still promotes some of its unfinished agenda, particularly the pledge to pursue tort reform.

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McInnis has been raising money energetically, and hints that he already has a campaign team in place. Campbell meanwhile has enlisted former Sen. Hank Brown and two other former officeholders respected in local conservative ranks to help manage his re-election campaign. The senator is clearly counting on such establishment Republicans to give him conservative cover, and to prevent a primary altogether if they can.

Beltway Republicans in particular seem determined to deny Colorado conservatives a choice of candidates. “The big point is that if a guy switches from the Dems to the GOP and then gets kicked in the head in a primary, what does that say to the next guy who may think about switching?” asks Clifford May, communications director of the Republican National Committee. May’s boss, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson, made a personal appeal to McInnis in late September to the effect that the congressman should wait his turn. Everyone from Dan Quayle to Trent Lott has indicated a willingness to plump for the senator’s re-election.

So far, McInnis has refused to wilt before the parade of heavyweights trooping toward his opponent. “Not one of the people who’ve urged me to stay out of the race has said we have a good senator and good representation,” McInnis observed the other day. If he was looking for an unimpeachable reason to run, he just found it.

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