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REPUBLICAN REIGN: ORANGE COUNTY CONSERVATIVES AND THE
PURSUIT OF POWER | TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL

Majority Are Less Uniform in Views Than GOP Leaders

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . SECOND OF FIVE PARTS

July 08, 1996|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In sharp contrast to the views of most of their elected representatives and party leaders, a majority of Orange County Republicans support abortion rights, stricter gun control laws and stronger protections for the environment.

They overwhelmingly agree with their elected officials on fiscal matters, immigration controls and the need to scale back, or eliminate, government programs such as affirmative action, welfare and bilingual education.

A Times Orange County Poll shows Republicans locally to be far less uniform in their views than the county's political leadership, with divergent opinions on topics ranging from gay rights and mandatory school prayer to erecting a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The poll, based on telephone interviews in May with 600 Orange County registered Republicans, found that 66% consider themselves politically conservative, while the rest view themselves as moderate to liberal.

But what does it mean to be a conservative Republican in Orange County?

David Nelson sees himself as one. The 54-year-old salesman from Fountain Valley is against government-funded abortions, opposes gun control laws, supports prayer in schools, thinks environmentalists have gone "too far" and believes building a wall along the border "might help" curb illegal immigration.

Patti Jo Frey considers herself a conservative Republican too. The 36-year-old marketing representative from Newport Beach wants to eliminate affirmative action and welfare programs and favors cracking down hard on illegal immigration. Yet she is "very pro-choice" in favoring the right to an abortion, supports gay rights and wants to ban semiautomatic weapons.

"I'm not big on social programs and big government spending," said Frey, who participated in the survey. "I'm being selfish, but I want what's good for me in my income bracket."

UC Irvine professor Mark Baldassare, who conducted The Times poll, calls it "Republicanism by a la carte menu."

"There are a lot of different views on what it means to be a Republican here," he said.

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said "there has always been a divergence of opinion" in the GOP.

"I would think that people would be joyful in knowing that difference of opinion exists," he said. "We are burdened by the conflict. We are challenged by intellectual independence. But it's healthy, [and] we seem to be able to deal with it."

He added that the only polling that matters is done on election day.

However, Baldassare said the lack of agreement on so many key issues ultimately could threaten the cohesiveness that has made the local GOP such an effective voting bloc in the past. Policy divisions could lead to special-interest splinter groups, which might end up battling each other and ultimately weaken the party, he said.

Furthermore, those divisions may be much more visible now that the party has the power to push its agenda in Congress.

"It's an uneasy alliance that is currently comfortable with the party," he said. "There are some major divisions that could spell trouble for it in November."

Republican voters who say the party's policies are in conflict with their own views are less likely to vote in primary and off-year general elections than arch-conservatives, but turn out in force in presidential election years like this year.

*

According to the poll, local Republican politicians get elected by embracing issues that are supported by the party's most staunch conservatives, who appear to be the most frequent and faithful voters.

These staunch conservatives, like Republican officeholders, tend to be against abortion, gun control, environmental protection and in favor of cracking down on immigration and welfare. Such views, according to the poll, often run contrary to the beliefs of the majority.

But if those holding the majority's views are less diligent about voting--as they say they are--why should the politicians bother to embrace their positions?

Sherry Wilson, 51, of Huntington Beach, who participated in the poll, is typical of many dissatisfied Republicans in Orange County. "I sit around and complain about things in the party, but I don't do much about it," she admitted.

Whether they vote or don't vote, most conservatives, moderates and other factions in the party said they are pleased with the direction of the local and national GOP. But the survey revealed an underlying concern about key platform issues that have been adopted by the party.

One issue that has already started creating a serious rift within the GOP is abortion. Like Republicans nationwide, local members are fearful that the party's antiabortion stance and its use as a litmus test for Republican candidates is a recipe for disaster.

According to the poll, only 1 in 10 Republican voters in Orange County said that abortion should be illegal in all cases. Mirroring national survey results, 55% of Orange County Republicans say the decision on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor.

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