Sugar for social cons in Tea Party brew

Chuck Donovan Contributor
Font Size:

It’s hard to turn around on Capitol Hill without bumping into one of the newly arrived victors of the midterm elections, most of whom are in Washington to receive orientation briefings and begin hiring staff.

Nearly all of these new faces belong to “Tea Party” conservatives, determined to clean up the fiscal mess confronting the nation. But the flavor of the incoming freshman class is sweet for social conservatives too.

Indeed, the 112th Congress could prove to be the most socially conservative set of newcomers since the one that rode into Washington on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1980. That’s clear from a close analysis of the public positions taken by the wave of conservative candidates who prevailed in hundreds of national and statewide contests.

Consider the 37 races for governor, where Republicans made a net gain of five and now hold at least 29 seats. All four GOP women who won governorships Nov. 2 were endorsed by the Susan B. Anthony List, whose pro-life PAC ranked among the largest independent conservative funds in the 2010 election cycle.

If Arizona’s Jan Brewer is controversial nationally, she proved quite popular at home. Nikki Haley not only will become South Carolina’s first female governor, but the first Indian-American woman elected governor anywhere in the United States. And in New Mexico, rising GOP star Susana Martinez will be the nation’s first Hispanic female governor.

The resumes of such women, and the “firsts” they represent, recall the pro-choice feminists who advanced in national politics after the first “Year of the Woman” in 1992.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, describes 2010 as “the defining moment” her conservative group anticipated. She has more evidence:

Pro-choice women have dominated Congress for nearly two decades. In the outgoing House class, 66 of the 76 women could be described as pro-choice. The same is true for all 17 of the current Senate’s female members.

On Election Day, however, challengers defeated 10 female incumbents who are pro-choice, among them Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Another seven pro-life female challengers finished as first-time winners, including Senator-elect Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. That’s a swing of 17 in the pro-life direction. Washington State’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers was just re-elected vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. The pro-choice Nancy Pelosi, needless to say, no longer will be House speaker.

A majority of the women in the 112th Congress still will be pro-choice, but the trend has Planned Parenthood and similar groups gnashing their teeth. The new balance of power will dramatically affect the character of debates, especially on topics — abortion funding and health care, for instance — where the public favors strong limits.

A changed atmosphere also looks to be in the offing for traditional marriage. The action on the issue shifted to the courthouses and the states in the past few years. Lawsuits challenging California’s traditional marriage law, Proposition 8, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act have resulted in victories so far for advocates of same-sex unions.

Unlike the past few election cycles, 2010 saw no marriage questions on state ballots. Advocates of state constitutional amendments to protect traditional marriage have found it difficult to expand their current total of 31 victories. Even in friendly states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, complex constitutional amendment procedures present high hurdles.

The year’s most important vote on marriage, however, came in Iowa.

In April 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that the state constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriages. The state legislature failed to advance a constitutional amendment. So advocates of traditional marriage turned to Iowa’s “judicial retention” process, in which the public votes over the course of eight years on retaining or removing individual judges.

The task was daunting. Iowa voters hadn’t removed a judge since merit selection reforms in 1962. By comfortable margins, though, Iowans voted Nov. 2 to remove all three Supreme Court justices on the ballot, including Chief Justice Marsha Ternus.

The results have national implications: At a Des Moines forum in September, Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, spoke in favor of insulating judges from retention votes. Apparently, Iowa voters are more concerned about keeping judges out of policymaking.

All in all, voters across America sounded a clarion call, inspired by the Tea Party movement, to return the nation to fiscal restraint and constitutional common sense. And the resulting tea included plenty of sugar for social conservatives.

Charles A. (Chuck) Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).