Stem-Cell Issue: Republicans' Undoing?
Disgruntled Party Moderates Could Pose Threat in Some Suburban Congressional Districts
At her home in this Chicago suburb, 68-year-old Alice Doyle has a sign in her front window for the Republican candidate for governor. But on a recent morning, she joined a small group at her neighbor's house to lend support to the Democrat running for Congress in this historically Republican district.
The candidate, Tammy Duckworth, 38, is an Iraq-war veteran and double amputee. Her subject at the coffee this day is public funding for medical research using embryonic stem cells. She endorses it; her Republican rival, Peter Roskam, 44, has led the fight in the Illinois Senate against it. Not coincidentally, 600 miles away President Bush was about to cast the first veto of his presidency against a bill permitting federal funding for such research, charging that it "crosses a moral boundary" in promoting "the taking of innocent human life."
While Ms. Duckworth jumps on the issue, Mr. Roskam dodges it. "There are bigger issues going on in this campaign." says spokesman Ryan McLaughlin, declining to make the candidate available despite several requests over two days.
The Republican's reticence is understandable. While Mr. Bush's position cheers religious and social conservatives in the Republicans' base, nationwide it has alienated many moderates and has some questioning their fealty to a party increasingly defined by its cultural conservatism in emphasizing its opposition to issues such as gay marriage and abortion. "I think the Republican Party is in the Dark Ages on this," says Mrs. Doyle, a registered Republican who says she now "tends to vote Democratic."
Moreover, as the party has grown more socially conservative over the past quarter-century, the suburbs where many Republicans live have become more diverse and politically independent, marked by a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that is testing Republicans' dominance there. "Those districts aren't as reliably Republican as they were," says campaign expert Bernadette Budde of the business-backed political advocacy group BIPAC.
That, in turn, has Democrats hoping to capture some of their foes' strongholds, by picking up disgruntled Republican moderates as well as independents. Whether they do could determine if Republicans keep their majorities in Congress after November's elections.
In Missouri, the stem-cell issue is prominent in Democratic Auditor Claire McCaskill's campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, and a separate initiative backing research is on the ballot, stoking interest. The issue also figures in Senate races in Ohio, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana and Virginia, and in suburban House contests in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Colorado and Washington. In Missouri's Aug. 8 Republican primary, conservative Rep. Todd Akin, a foe of the stem-cell bill, is challenged by state Rep. Sherman Parker, who strongly supports expanded research and has written that such debates "will determine whether we are a party controlled by social fundamentalists."
The president's position is a minority one, even among Republicans, polls show. The question of government aid for embryonic stem-cell research is popular across all regions, ages and political groups, amid scientists' claims that the cells hold the potential for treatments or even cures for diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's diseases, multiple sclerosis, cancer and neurological and spinal-cord injuries.
"This is a big deal in a lot of these suburban districts," says political consultant David Axelrod of Chicago, who is working for Ms. Duckworth. "Republicans are trying to satisfy their base, but I think there's some cost."
But at the National Republican Campaign Committee, spokesman Carl Forti predicts the stem-cell question will be a "nonissue" by the fall, and White House aides agree, noting that it never became the big issue in the 2004 campaign that some had forecast.
The race in the congressional district west of Chicago will be a test. For nearly 32 years its representative has been Republican Henry Hyde, nationally known as an abortion foe and a leader in the House's impeachment of Bill Clinton. While the district includes the parts of Cook County outside Chicago, its heart is affluent DuPage County, dubbed "America's Most Republican County" by the local party.
But there are signs of change. Mr. Hyde's re-election vote dropped from a typical 65% in 2002 to 56% in 2004, his lowest ever. While the first President Bush got 68% of DuPage's vote in 1988, his son won 54% in 2004.
Now 82, Mr. Hyde is retiring. Mr. Roskam, his would-be successor, is a trial lawyer who was an aide to Mr. Hyde and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay before going to the Illinois House and then the state Senate. He's "a younger version of Henry Hyde," the DuPage Republican Party chairman, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, has said.
Mr. Dillard illustrates the way the stem-cell issue has split his party. He switched to support funding for research in the state Senate, imploring, "How can you not be for this?" In an interview, he says he was influenced by advocates from nearby Children's Memorial Hospital and a local pediatrician.
Another proponent is the Republican leader of the Illinois House, Tom Cross, a protégé and former history student of U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert of Illinois; his 13-year-old daughter has juvenile diabetes. "Everybody knows somebody who's got some connection" to conditions that might be helped, he says. "But has it translated into people leaving the party? I haven't seen that, yet."
Just as Mr. Hyde argued in House debate that embryos are human beings -- "I myself am a 992-month-old embryo" -- Mr. Roskam likewise was passionate in successfully blocking any state funding for research in the Illinois Senate. "We are asked to pit one life against another," he said in 2004. In an interview with the Journal earlier this year, Mr. Roskam called his views "well within the mainstream" of the district. Those voters who do disagree with him, he added, support him because they share his views on keeping taxes low and other issues.
Not Mae Pearson, a 77-year-old widow at the Duckworth coffee. "I was raised Republican -- strong Republican -- and I thought it was so wonderful to move to DuPage County after I got married" in 1950, she says. "But it's just too hard to be a Republican anymore because it's not the Republican Party I grew up in."
"Embryos count, people don't," complains George Strejcek, 62. He and wife Elizabeth, 58, describe themselves as former Republicans. "Goldwater I could tolerate," he says. "But with these Republicans, they forget we live in a democracy, not a theocracy."
"They're not fiscally responsible either," his wife says.
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