The Big Tent Folds

Portraits of two Republican caucuses--one suburban, one urban-- underline the growing polarities in GOP ranks.

Apple Valley, Precinct 5

NOT SO LONG ago there were corn fields where Apple Valley Precinct 5 now exists; three decades ago, the city didn't exist even in name. But today Apple Valley High School is a massive brick-faced complex that bursts at the seams with the baby boom's children. There are close to 400 Republicans here tonight, twiddling their thumbs as the state senator expounds on the virtues of democracy and tells everyone to come visit the state Capitol.

It's the third-best-attended caucus in Apple Valley history, and Precinct 5--on the southeast of town, encompassing both a lake and a trailer park--has the biggest attendance. People are clustered around the tables in the orange-carpeted library, laughing, shaking hands, and peering furtively at strangers. "The other side is pretty organized this time," a guy with a mustache says to Lilly Awsumb. "Did you bring a list?" She nods.

The evening starts with the routine stuff. Delegate candidates stand to introduce themselves; there's a fair number of retirees and homemakers, along with businesspeople and systems managers from 3M. One guy notes that he's between jobs, "and I have résumés here, if anyone's interested." There's a minor argument over whether people should declare whom they support for president "because there are so many new folks here, and we'd like to know who we're voting for." But Bill Hanley, the white-haired veteran who, as Lilly informs me, always gets elected precinct chair, says that's not really how the party likes it.

You couldn't tell, from the politeness that reigns in the room, that there's a battle going on here. The fault lines are under the surface, communicated only in code. One group of people talk about how they've served in state government and the local sewer commission; a lot of them have lived here "since before there was Apple Valley." Another group have move-in dates from the '80s, kids in school, and usually conclude by saying, "I'm a conservative Republican." Both Awsumbs are in that category. But the heavily Christian movement conservatives are outnumbered. When the straw poll comes back--it needs to be counted right away, so it can get on the 10 o'clock news--45 of the 85 votes are for Dole. Buchanan has 16, Forbes 14, Lamar Alexander three, and Richard Lugar one. Six votes are for Alan Keyes, including two from the Awsumbs, who voted for him because they don't like the way he's been treated.

Some people get up and leave right after the straw poll; at one table, the only guy left sitting is a tall, skinny man who works for the Koch refinery. He won't say who he voted for, except that there are old-line Republicans--farmers--in his family and "you just basically don't stray from the way you grew up." But he likes some of the things Buchanan has to say, especially the stuff about strong moral values, and tariffs. "It's a big hole right now, because the party traditionally has been more for big business," he explains haltingly. "I think someone needs to start talking about it, because if you're just for big business it's going to drag everyone down along with it. A lot of my friends are upset about all the downsizing."

There are only four resolutions on the floor, and they blow past in record time. One, against the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (which, the proposer claims, would not allow parents to stop kids from joining gangs or consuming pornography) passes with no nays; another, asking for a reversal of the state Supreme Court decision mandating Medical Assistance for abortions, barely makes it. Ten or 15 years ago, Gordon Awsumb says, people would wrangle for hours over this stuff; now, "everyone is middle-aged" and wants to go home.

As they wait for the delegate tally--everyone else is gone by 9:15--the Awsumbs ponder the presidential crop. Lilly is torn between Keyes, Forbes, and Buchanan; the only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn't want Dole. "Because he's the establishment."

What bothers her about the establishment? "I think the establishment has a vested interest in the size of government, and the intrusiveness of government. And they're not representing the people anymore; they're for the multinational corporations. Just like unions don't represent the rank and file anymore. I think it's true that Americans can't compete with people in Mexico who are making $1 an hour--and it's not right for people in Mexico to be making $1 an hour either. I think someone has to address that." She likes Buchanan for that reason, but worries about the other stuff she's heard about anti-Semitism, racism, immigration. "Why punish the people who are risking their lives and separating from their families? I think they should crack down on the corporations who bring these people in, at less than minimum wage."

"To me," Lilly muses after a lull, "being conservative is about conserving something. Or getting it back the way it used to be. Especially the federal government--it's like Wal-Mart, these big companies, selling all the same products around the country. For example, I'm against capital punishment, but I don't think we should have a federal law about that. I barely think we should have federal crimes." All of government needs to get a lot smaller, Gordon echoes--right on down to the local level. There's too much meddling in private business, and too many subsidies, like tax-increment financing. "And the military," his wife chimes in. "There's a public-private partnership that needs to be looked at."

Next Page »