Five Elections that Mattered for Conservatism

In 1970, a young conservative who once played professional football and served as an aid to California governor Ronald Reagan was elected in an upstate New York congressional district. He was a different kind of Republican from New York. Neither the heir  to inherited wealth nor a seat on Wall Street, Jack Kemp, a football great for the Buffalo Bills, represented the hopes and aspirations of blue-collar, middle-class, hard-working Buffalo area constituents. He was also an idea man with cheerful energy and a winning personality. In today’s Washington of government shutdowns and funding disputes a lot could be learned from Jack Kemp.

Kemp pushed ideas to the limit. He made these ideas understandable not only to average Americans but to opinion leaders as well. His advocacy for marginal tax rate reduction, urban enterprise zones, and empowering Main Street were to become the Republican agenda. His election in 1970 was consequential as the ideas he advocated became the cornerstone of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

But, Reagan may never had led such a campaign had it not been for the 1976 North Carolina Republican primary. In 1976 Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford. The early primaries and caucuses did not go well for Reagan. There were calls for him to withdraw from the race and money was drying up. However, Reagan stunned the establishment by winning the North Carolina Republican primary. His decisive victory in North Carolina saved his campaign, and he came within a few delegates of defeating an incumbent president for the nomination. Reagan’s victory in North Carolina ensured his place on the podium at the 1976 Republican Convention, and assured his place as the conservative leader in the Republican Party after Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s victory in the North Carolina primary fortified his leadership of the conservative movement and allowed him to lead conservative causes during Carter’s presidency, including opposition to the Panama Canal treaties.

In 1989, a congressman from the back benches decided to challenge Edward Madigan for Minority Whip of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. The improbable campaign of Newt Gingrich stunned Washington and excited conservatives across the country. Gingrich was an idea man, and was very interested in directly challenging the Democrats and liberals who controlled Capitol Hill. Unlike the more genteel Republican leadership, Gingrich sought to advocate conservative ideas through the use of the levers of the House and emerging media alternatives such as C-Span. His slim victory in the Republican caucus was consequential. He became the face and the strategist for the wave that eventually led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and assured his election as the first Republican Speaker of the House since the 1950s. His leadership helped in part to reverse George H.W. Bush’s loss in 1992.

In 2010, a medical doctor from Bowling Green, Kentucky, began a campaign for the Republican nomination for the Senate. He was not the favored candidate of either the state Republican establishment or the national Republican establishment. However, Rand Paul won the Republican primary and was elected to the Senate in the Republican wave of 2010. Though the full consequences of his election are yet to be seen, his election to the Senate marked an important victory for the libertarian wing of the Republican Party where ideas of privacy, criminal justice reform, a restrained foreign policy, and personal liberty appeal to constituents not normally part of the Republican electorate. His ideas may play a major role in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2012, despite a very bad year for Republicans and conservatives, a young governor of Wisconsin beat back a recall election. Scott Walker became the first governor to survive a recall election in the nation’s history, and by 2014 he had won three statewide elections in Wisconsin. His efforts to curb the power of public employee unions, and the resolute stand he took in advocating his conservative positions, makes him a consequential leader of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Each of these elections have contributed to the conservative movement. Jack Kemp’s joyful advocacy of marginal tax rate reduction and economic liberty helped frame the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful race for president in 1976 assured his leadership of the conservative movement and set the stage for his victory in 1980, Newt Gingrich’s challenge to a genteel House Republican leadership set the stage for 1994, and today the emergence of Rand Paul and Scott Walker may very well define conservatism for a generation to come.