THE apparent Republican Party takeover by a coalition of followers of televangelist Pat Robertson and impeached Gov. Evan Mecham has left many Arizona Republican officeholders feeling like men and women without a party. But next month mainstream Republicans will begin fighting back. On April 8, a group of about 80, led by state Rep. Chris Herstam of Phoenix, will spend the day planning ways to elect mainstream GOP legislators and a mainstream GOP governor. The Mainstream Republican Forum, as they call themselves, also intends ``to send a clear message to the mainstream Republican electorate in this state that they have not been forgotten,'' Mr. Herstam says.
Although polls consistently indicate that ``new conservatives'' represent only 17 to 20 percent of the Arizona electorate, Herstam says the Mecham-Robertson forces have taken over the party's apparatus. Not everyone agrees, least of all the Mecham-Robertson leaders themselves. But Herstam's experience is personal. ``When I go to Republican meetings in my district, I am booed, insulted, and harassed by the Mecham-Robertson supporters,'' he says.
The new conservatives contend, however, that they still do not control the party. One of their most outspoken leaders, David Hinchliffe, says that, although his people have been elected to a majority of the state party's 4,000 precinct committee posts, only five of the 16 county GOP chairmen are part of the coalition. And he believes only a third of the 71-member state executive committee is part of the coalition. But he vows that by autumn 1990, the Robertson-Mecham forces will take over the party structure. That's when a new round of internal party elections begin. According to Mr. Hinchliffe, at that point, the new conservatives ``will constitute a majority in the majority of the counties.''
Hinchliffe is a disabled Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Republican committee in largely rural Pinal County. He also is an ardent member of the Arizona Breakfast Club, a right-wing group.
The group meets Saturday mornings in a Phoenix restaurant where they hear speakers like Carl Prussian, who says he spent 27 years in the Communist Party, the last 12 as a ``double-agent for the FBI.'' He told a Breakfast Club audience, according to Hinchliffe, that ``declaring a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King is one of the biggest Communist victories in the United States.'' One of Mecham's first official acts as a newly elected governor was to cancel the holiday status of the King birthday.
Hinchliffe wants Mecham to run for governor in 1990. He is ebullient about the linkup between pro-Robertson forces and Mecham followers. ``Ironically,'' he points out, ``we come from two different theological places, but we have the same spiritual background. I'm tickled to death that we have three ministers on our county committee. I have added a benediction after the business portion of our meetings. We just get right down into it. Some start praying in tongues. Of course, some people are very nervous with that, as you can well expect. It's something that people don't put right out in front.''
This kind of fundamentalist Christian behavior is not necessarily the stuff of which revolutions are made, but some conventional Republicans believe it sets a tone that leads to controversies like the ``Christian nation'' resolution adopted at the state party's annual meeting last Jan. 28. Drafted by committeewoman Annetta Conant of Pinal County, it cited the US Supreme Court ruling (in 1892) ``that this is a Christian nation.'' The controversy also implicated Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. However, contrary to some reports, Justice O'Connor did not endorse the resolution. She simply responded to a letter Ms. Conant wrote nearly a year ago and sent Conant the copy of the Supreme Court opinion she requested.
A month after the resolution was adopted, the state executive committee, including Hinchliffe, met and adopted a second resolution designed to stress the GOP's efforts to include members of all religions and races. Hinchliffe says the new resolution was basically meaningless. A good many mainstream Republicans agree.
What will all this turmoil mean for the Arizona Republican Party? Perhaps not much. As Herstam, the state House majority whip, says, ``Most candidates have their own campaign organizations, and they raise their own money. The party is helpful, but you win or lose elections by your own organization.''