Many within the party have become skeptical of candidates who extol a message in the 1980s “Reaganomics” mold, but have done little while in office to cut spending, tackle the ever-increasing deficit and limit expensive pet projects.
A Pew Research Center study of the 2004 presidential vote labeled 9 percent of Americans as economic conservatives: disproportionately active, with 96 percent ultimately heading to the polls, and decidedly Republican, with 92 percent voting to re-elect President Bush.
At the time, the group was almost as influential in the GOP as those calling themselves social conservatives, but as the proportion of Americans who support traditional social values continues to decrease, according to a 2007 Pew study, it has only amplified the economic conservatives’ voice in the party.
By the 2006 congressional elections, a Zogby poll found that 59 percent of voters described themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, assigning considerable clout to the economic conservatives in the 2008 election cycle.
But with 18 months until an election, economic conservatives have yet to rally around a Republican candidate and fiscal-restraint advocacy groups have expressed reservations about the three party front-runners — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
McCain, who has won accolades for his spending record, has reiterated a message of frugality: “I want to spend less money on government bureaucracies,” he told a group in Memphis, Tenn., shortly before announcing his candidacy in April. But McCain objected to President Bush’s tax cuts, a foundation for economic conservatives, alienating conservatives and giving opportunities for other candidates to grab fiscally conservative Republican voters.
Romney, who had raised more campaign funds than any other Republican candidate in the first quarter of 2007, has painted himself as an economic conservative, emphasizing his proposed limits to non-defense-related discretionary spending and cuts to capital gains taxes and corporate tax rates. But, as Massachusetts’ governor, he closed corporate tax loopholes and increased fees for services and state budget analysts have charged that the state’s fiscal health had been inflated under his watch.
During his two terms as mayor of New York City, Giuliani cut taxes and reduced spending, turning the city’s budgetary deficit into a surplus. “This country needs a president who can exercise fiscal discipline,” Giuliani told supporters in Iowa in April, repeating his strongest selling point with the fiscal conservative bloc that has yet to scrutinize his economic position but has still bought into his message. Giuliani, who is more liberal on social issues than many in his party, has maintained a lead in GOP primary polls since early 2007.
“You can’t explain first place status unless he’s appealing to mainstream Republicans, who are economic conservatives,” said Pat Toomey, president of the anti-tax group Club for Growth and former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania.
Toomey said his group’s members and other economic conservative voters are having difficulty finding a candidate to support, instead gravitating toward lower-tier candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is not officially running but recently polled third in April behind Giuliani and McCain for the GOP primary, according to Rassmussen Reports. Both have stronger records of reducing taxes and spending and advocating a limited government.
“I would like to see one of the leading candidates take a bold position, step out of the box and advocate for major tax reform, significant further tax reduction, Social Security reform plans,” Toomey said.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson have followed their Republican peers, labeling themselves fiscal conservatives.
“They’re all giving the message of economic conservancy, but that has become the party rote. The question is, are they trustworthy,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Costas Panagopoulos, a professor who runs the elections and campaign management center at Fordham University, said any candidate who promotes the Republican Party as one of fiscal responsibility will raise credibility concerns with economic conservatives who have watched spending increase under the current administration.
“An individual candidate might be able to overcome coming across like a hypocrite; a strong message and clear demonstration of fiscal responsibility is something that will be quite convincing,” said Panagopoulos.
Should no Republican candidate emerge from the fragmented field, Democrats could have an opportunity to win over disenfranchised conservatives on economic issues, as well as pro-business voters that align themselves more with economic conservative stances than the Republican Party.
“If your primary concern is economic and fiscal conservatism, there are some fiscally conservative Democrats that may be appropriate candidates,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, who added that his group doesn’t believe Democrats would be any better at reducing waste than Republicans.
The Cato Institute’s Edwards suggested that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson could be one Democratic candidate who fiscally mindful voters find appealing. “[Richardson] knows there’s a void there that he wants to fill in,” he said. But it remains to be seen if a right-leaning Democrat could win a nomination while the party’s core leans left.
The pro-business community also is scoping a candidate who will lower government spending and reduce taxes and bureaucratic red tape so that businesses can grow and generate jobs, putting them in the same ideological company as economic conservatives.
“You talk to business leaders, what they worry about most is a skilled workforce. It’s their biggest issue,” said Bill Miller, senior vice president of the nonprofit U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which counts 3 million American businesses as members.
Miller said concern over trade issues is a major thread with his constituents who are still looking for a candidate with a pro-business message that is “real and responsible, not one that deals with hypocrisy.”
Across pro-business groups, issues relating to developing a skilled workforce through education, remaining competitive in a global marketplace and meeting current and future energy needs cut across industries.
Bernadette Budde, senior vice president of the bipartisan, pro-business Business-Industry Political Action Committee, said the bright side of an early and active race with no clear heir apparent has been that the business community has had access to “nearly everybody.”
“Our constituency is going to be all over the place and increasingly less partisan-driven because we’ve been conditioned to think through a prism of issues. Anyone could be your ally,” Budde said.