IN FROM THE FRINGE
Aug 10, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 46 • By TUCKER CARLSON
FOR MAINSTREAM REPUBLICANS from Illinois, Al Salvi is the archetypal right-winger. He achieved this standing in 1996, when, as a little-known state legislator, he beat Illinois lieutenant governor Bob Kustra in the GOP primary, then went on to lose the race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. Kustra was a pro-choice moderate and the favorite of state party officials. Salvi was a fanatically anti-abortion lapel-grabber with a fetish for guns -- a perfect candidate, in other words, for the activists who decide Republican primaries, but an unacceptable wacko in the eyes of party moderates and the general electorate. So, at any rate, goes the conventional wisdom.
It's been almost two years since Salvi lost that Senate seat to Dick Durbin, but Illinois Republicans can't stop talking about him. History, they fear, is repeating itself. Peter Fitzgerald, this year's Republican nominee in the race against Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, is another socially conservative state legislator. Like Salvi, Fitzgerald is young, ideological, and rich enough to finance his own campaign. Like Salvi, Fitzgerald defeated his pro-choice opponent in a nasty primary campaign and now faces a liberal Democrat popular with women.
Agitated party elders, who had hoped to put an Illinois Republican in the Senate for the first time since 1984, think they know what's going to happen next. "If we lose this one," a Republican political operative explained to the Chicago Tribune, "then we lose the right to run a conservative statewide for a generation." During the primary, former senator Bob Dole did his best to prevent a conservative from running at all. While stumping around the state for Fitzgerald's opponent, Dole described Fitzgerald as a "fringe" candidate from the "far right" and predicted that Carol Moseley-Braun would be "saying a few prayers" for his victory. When Fitzgerald did win this March, an Associated Press headline described his nomination as "badly needed good news" for Democrats.
Democrats shouldn't start celebrating just yet. Fitzgerald is indeed conservative, but his views are hardly the political millstone the headline-writers imagine. Fitzgerald strongly opposes both abortion and gay marriage. On the other hand, so do many Illinois Democrats, including gubernatorial nominee Glenn Poshard, who frequently campaigns with Moseley-Braun. And while Fitzgerald has expressed enthusiasm for liberalized concealed-weapons laws, he has also endorsed the assault-weapons ban and the Brady Bill and has made a point of accepting no money from the NRA. He is in favor of term limits, wants to fix Social Security, supports more federal funding for highways, and in general appears to have perfectly mainstream Republican views on politics and government.
As significant, Fitzgerald doesn't come across as an extremist. A 37-year-old married lawyer from suburban Chicago, he majored in Latin and Greek at Dartmouth and has the calm, slightly dorky demeanor of the bank executive he once was. Which is to say, he couldn't be more different from Al Salvi, who in one particularly spectacular display of recklessness shortly before the 1996 election wrongly accused gunshot victim and Durbin ally James Brady of having been a machine-gun dealer. ("Turns out that was a different Jim Brady," Salvi explained to reporters the next day.) Salvi often came off as rash, and if there is one lesson from his defeat it is that temperament matters to Illinois voters, probably even more than ideology. Salvi lost not because he was perceived as a wild-eyed right-winger, but because he just seemed wild-eyed.
No one, by contrast, is going to accuse Fitzgerald of lacking polish or self-control. "He was very level-headed, mainstream, not given to wild schemes," says author Dinesh D'Souza, who knew Fitzgerald at Dartmouth. A former editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review, D'Souza says that Fitzgerald "had far too much sense" to join the famously belligerent paper. "He looked on our activities with wry amusement, but he knew better than to be publicly associated with us. Even in those days, he was a crafty fellow, looking ahead."