Rejecting Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy of Illinois as a “partisan Democrat in Republican’s clothing,’“ a group of nationally-recognized conservative leaders endorsed the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate on this weekend in 1984.
Too often, they believed, Percy had voted with liberal Democrats.
Percy described the move as a ”pretty transparent” maneuver to insure his defeat so that Republican conservatives could install Senator Jesse Helms, an arch-conservative Republican of North Carolina, as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a post held by Percy in the Republican-controlled Senate since 1981 when he succeeded Idaho’s Frank Church.
“It’s clear what they want,” said Percy, a three-term incumbent involved in an extremely tight race with liberal Democratic Rep. Paul Simon, a newspaper publisher and five-term congressmen who emerged from a heavily-contested primary to win his party’s nomination.
“The Libertarians and the new conservatives share no other interest,” continued the embattled Republican, adding with more than a tinge of bitterness that the Libertarian Party favors “legalizing prostitution and other kooky ideas and have no regard for Republican control of the Senate.”
The GOP held a 55-45 majority in the U.S. Senate at the time.
Terry Dolan, chairman of the increasingly influential National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), begged to differ with the longtime Illinois lawmaker, saying the “issue is Percy, not Helms.” Anybody who supported President Reagan’s conservative agenda,” added Dolan, “should vote against Charles Percy.”
Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus — an organization he founded a decade earlier — concurred. “’Conservatives have a duty to advance and vote for candidates who will endorse their principles and policy objectives in key areas,” said Phillips, who later founded the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which is now called the Constitution Party, and thrice ran for President on its ticket.
The Libertarian Party’s Steven Givot, a 34-year-old options trader, was such a candidate, asserted Phillips. “Clearly, Steven Givot is far closer to our views than either Congressman Simon or Sen. Percy,” he added.
Promising financial support for the long-shot Libertarian candidate, Dolan and Phillips were joined in their Chicago news conference by the legendary Richard Viguerie, a pioneer in political direct mail fundraising and publisher of the widely-read Conservative Digest, Lawrence Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, and the now-disgraced Jack Abramoff, a recent Brandeis University graduate who was then serving as chairman of the College Republican National Committee.
Waging his first campaign for public office, the little-known Givot was delighted to receive the conservative endorsement. “These men,” he told reporters, “have looked beyond party labels and recognized that we must elect to office only individuals whose beliefs are consistent with the protection of individuals’ personal and property rights.”
Some conservatives disagreed with the endorsement, including Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who traveled to Chicago a few weeks later to publicly endorse Percy’s bid for a fourth term. “These are my friends,” he said of the conservative leaders backing Givot‘s candidacy, “but I think they have suicidal tendencies.”
While he might have been able to understand the idea of punishing Percy, the televangelist couldn’t quite fathom doing something that could undermine President Reagan’s legislative agenda.
“I think it’s unreal that we could do something that could hurt the president,” Falwell told the City Club of Chicago.
Though the Illinois Libertarian didn’t personally cost Chuck Percy his seat that autumn, the three-term Illinois lawmaker nevertheless went down to defeat, losing to his bow-tied Democratic challenger by slightly more than 89,000 votes.
Not quite the “spoiler” factor some starry-eyed conservatives had hoped, Givot garnered a respectable 59,777 votes, or 1.2 percent of the vote.