GOP's retreat from ERA may have heaviest impact on state and local Republican races

Will the Republican retreat from the party's 40-year-old endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) have an impact on the November election? Political analysts tend to agree that an individual's vote for a presidential candidate rarely turns on a single issue. Thus, the Republican platform stance in itself is not expected to lure many anti-ERA Democrats and independents to or repel many pro-ERA Republicans from voting for Ronald Reagan, the likely GOP presidential nominee.

But the issue is an emotional one, and most polls show majority support for the ERA. The latest survey commissioned by the National Organization of Women (NOW) shows that 62 percent of all Americans (including a majority of traditionally conservative religious fundamentalists) favor the amendment.

Some observers agree that among those who care most deeply and are dissatisfied with what they see as President Carter's lack of vigor in urging state ratification of the amendment, independent presidential candidate John Anderson could reap some new votes.

However, the strongest impact of the Republican Party's conservative shift on women's rights -- and the wrangling that led up to it -- may fall on the party's image and on the election prospects of Republican state and local candidates.

"I think the reversal was a needlessly self- inflicted wound that doesn't do anything to broaden the appeal of the party," says Carolyn Steiber, a professor of political science at Michigan State University. "I can't imagine it would draw anyone to the fold who wasn't already there. I think it cannot help but have a negative effect on the growing ranks of uncommitted voters who hadn't decided about the Republicans and were looking to the platform to be a warm, embracing document."

"It's not so much the stand taken that's remembered later, but the nasty fights," says William Flanigan, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. "They creat a bad impression which often lingers on."

"The platform decision on ERA is one more piece of the mosaic people see when they look at the Republican Party," observes James Nolan, University of Illinois professor of political science and a Republican who once managed the Illinois congressional campaign of Rep. John Anderson. "It's impossible to tote up the impact in votes. But you can ask, 'Does this confirm the negative perception some people have of the Republican Party and make them less willing to work for it?'"

Some observers see a potential dent on the enthusiasm of some party regulars to work for GOP candidates as the most damaging effect of all.

"I'm a pragmatist, and I'm really concerned because I want to see the Republican Party win in November," insists one Mid- western GOP delegate. She personally supports ERA but heads a state Federation of Republican Women that is divided on the subject. "Women who are for ERA will see this as a slap in the face. Some of them may well refuse to work for Republican legislators who don't share their point of view."

"It's the kind of issue that could turn quite a few active Republicans against the Reagan campaign," agrees Professor Flanigan."These internal fights tend to hurt you among actives important in working on a campaign."

As the leading proponent of ERA, NOW plans to lead a massive Detroit demonstration of amendment supporters clad in white as the convention opens here July 14. NOW workers have been passing out invitations to the event as delegates and their families arrive at the airport, and they expect a sizable turnout. One of John Anderson's daughters, Eleanora, is expected to participate. Some Republican delegates hope the demonstration will force Mr. Reagan to say more on the subject of women's rights and "tone down" the controversy that erupted after the platform decision.

However, NOW leaders are in now way urging Republican women to abandon the party altogether.

"We cannot afford to be a single-party organization, and we will continue to support moderates and progressives within the party," says Ann Lang, head of NOW's Republican committee and a party supporter for the last 25 years. "It was a grievous error on the part of the platform committee -- they underestimated the strength of the support that exists for ERA -- but we're not about to step back from a fight on this issue."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.