The Republican Challengers of Richard Nixon

Since the Watergate hearings in 1973, it has been known that President Richard Nixon had an “enemies list” which consisted of twenty people of the political left. On it were also three radical left members of Congress: Ron Dellums of California, John Conyers of Michigan, and Allard Lowenstein of New York. However, this list expanded even further into a master list, including the entire Congressional Black Caucus and numerous mostly Democratic politicians. The Republicans who made this list were Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Rep. Pete McCloskey of California, and former Senator Charles Goodell of New York. However, this story is about McCloskey and another guy who didn’t make the lists, John Ashbrook.

By 1972, Nixon had pursued a third way between the liberal and conservative wings of the Republican Party, and there was dissatisfaction on both fronts. Pete McCloskey (1927- ), who represented San Mateo in Congress and had defeated none other than Shirley Temple Black in the GOP primary to win his seat, was to Nixon’s left on both social and economic issues and had an ongoing feud with California Governor Ronald Reagan. However, his reason for running was Nixon’s policies on the Vietnam War, an issue in which he was outspoken. As McCloskey stated, “I would not have challenged the President, had it not been for the gradual realization that his plan to end the war in Vietnam actually involved a drive to win the war, that his true belief was reflected in an off-the-cuff comment: ‘I’m not going to be the first President to lose a war’” (Johns, 4). He had in 1968 initially backed Nelson Rockefeller for the nomination, but turned to Nixon after he realized that Ronald Reagan was more likely to prevail than his ideal. From 1968 to 1971, his Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA) score averaged a 36%.

Pete McCloskey - Wikipedia
Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.)

McCloskey had no chance at beating Nixon in the Republican primary: he was too liberal to win a presidential nomination but he knew that and it wasn’t the point for him. The point for him was to push Nixon to end the war in Vietnam. You might say he was the Republican version of George McGovern, albeit less left-wing.

On the other end of the GOP ideological spectrum was John Ashbrook (1928-1982) of Ohio. Ashbrook had been in Congress since 1961 and he had established himself as the most conservative member of that delegation to Congress and stood out in being the only one from Ohio to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he would join the rest for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His ACA score from 1961 to 1971 averaged a whopping 98%. Ashbrook opposed Nixon’s adoption of price controls, his support for the Family Assistance Plan, and continually running budget deficits. His bid received the support of National Review, indeed William F. Buckley Jr. and other conservative intellectuals had announced a suspension of support for Nixon after his going to China and casting Taiwan to the wayside. Ashbrook’s slogan was “No Left Turns”. Writing from the left on Ashbrook’s candidacy, E.J. Dionne (1972) stated, “Ashbrook has made the elections–and more specifically the Republican primaries–a lot more important. He has chosen the path of revolt against an electoral process without choices and against certain manifestations of state power. For all these things, one must respect him”.

John M. Ashbrook - Wikipedia
John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio)

Ashbrook’s bid was at heart quixotic, as although his campaign got the support of some conservative intellectuals and activists, it failed to secure the backing of conservative bigwigs such as Senators Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and John Tower of Texas. Indeed, his goal wasn’t to win, as Daniel Bring (2019) writes, “He knew he could not beat Nixon, but he could make the paranoid president fearful and inspire him to return to the views that had put him in office”. However, it is fondly remembered among those conservatives who couldn’t abide Nixon’s significant turns away from conservative orthodoxy and helps to fuel the myth that Nixon was a liberal.

The Aftermath

Ashbrook and McCloskey both failed to defeat Nixon in the primary, but they strangely enough both succeeded in their aims, although their primary challenges probably didn’t do much to push Nixon. Nixon was more conservative in his second term than his first and on January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, bringing an end of the American role in the Vietnam War.  

On July 30, 1974, Ashbrook called for Nixon’s impeachment, citing “the President’s improper use of the Internal Revenue Service, his improper use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the [Watergate] coverup”, as well as the “plumbers unit” Nixon created to stop security leaks (Hunter). This was six days before the release of the “smoking gun” tapes. However, according to the Washington-Star News, McCloskey had Ashbrook beat on this, reporting on June 9th, 1974, that McCloskey supported impeachment. Both men won their reelection bids that year.

The Remainder of Ashbrook’s Career

Ashbrook’s political career was, as Michael Barone in the 1982 Almanac of American Politics put it, “almost a catalogue of lost causes” and that his record constituted “a continual triumph of idealism over practicality, of principle over effectiveness” (Blair). A lot of these lost causes were for conservatism in a Democratic Congress but one astounding example of his promotion of lost causes regarded the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ashbrook, who had been a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in its heyday, had always despised King as a left-wing radical who he accused of having surreptitiously promoted and provoked violence through pushing crises, stood out especially in later years for his refusal to vote for any official positive recognition of him. On October 4, 1967, he had in his extension of remarks in the Congressional Record, titled “Rev. Martin Luther King: Man of Peace or Apostle of Violence?”, stated that “King is a national figure, this cannot be denied. He is one of the only men who can go from jail cell to a conference with the President of the United States. His name is known; his cause is said to be civil rights. For one reason or another, however, very little is known about the real Martin Luther King. I believe that if his true character were known, he would not be able to command a corporal’s guard to follow him” (Ashbrook). In 1979, he was one of only eleven representatives to vote against authorizing a bust or statue of King, joining John Birch Society members John Rousselot of California and Larry McDonald of Georgia, the former chair of the now defunct House Internal Security Committee Richard Ichord of Missouri, and Ron Paul of Texas. Ashbrook was also one of the leading voices against the adoption of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, and in 1981 argued against a memorial to King, stating that because of controversy surrounding his life, no such memorial should be put up until secret files on him are released in 2027 (The New York Times).

The Remainder of McCloskey’s Career

McCloskey continued as a liberal Republican but strangely enough softened a bit on his old foe in the California Republican Party, Ronald Reagan. Although he had initially favored John B. Anderson of Illinois for the nomination, on September 26, 1980, The Washington Post reported that he endorsed Reagan. McCloskey explained his decision thusly, “I just ended 10 years of hostility. The governor said 10 years ago that I ought to represent only the San Andreas earthquake fault and I said he should raise his tax-free cattle there. But I think four more years of Jimmy Carter would be a disaster…because I think the consistency of a Reagan foreign policy would be far less dangerous than the inconsistency of Carter foreign policy.  I’ve seen Carter change his position on the neutron bomb, Pakistan, on nuclear power, the export of nuclear material [and] on the Israeli question, and these zigzags on foreign policy, in my judgment, are much more dangerous to preserving world peace than the consistency of Reagan” (Cannon). Indeed, during Reagan’s first two years in office, McCloskey voted more to the right than he had ever done. In 1981, ACA gave him a score of 61%. It is of great irony that he gave his old foe Reagan more support than he had ever given Nixon, despite the former being considerably to the right of the latter.

The End of Both Congressional Careers

Both Ashbrook’s and McCloskey’s time as elected officials would end with the 97th Congress. Both men had ambitions for the U.S. Senate, as both ran in their respective primaries in 1982. However, Ashbrook died unexpectedly of massive internal hemorrhaging on April 24, 1982 while on the campaign trail. He was 53 years old. McCloskey on the other hand lost his bid for the nomination to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, coming in second. He did attempt a political comeback in 2006 at the age of 79 in running in the primary against Congressman Richard Pombo, a champion of property rights and an arch-nemesis of environmental groups who was facing controversy for his connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Not long after losing the primary, McCloskey announced that was changing party registration to Democrat. Unlike Ashbrook, he is still alive and kicking at 93 and on December 14, 2020, he was one of the California electors for the Biden-Harris ticket.


Ashbrook, J.M. (1967, October 4). Extension of Remarks: “Rev. Martin Luther King: Man of Peace or Apostle of Violence?”. Congressional Record, 113(158).

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Blair, W.G. (1982, April 25). Rep. John M. Ashbrook of Ohio Dies At Age of 53. The New York Times.

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Bring, D. (2019, September 27). When Conservatives Tried To Throw Out Richard Nixon. The American Conservative.

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Cannon, L. (1980, September 26). McCloskey Buries the Hatchet by Endorsing Reagan. The Washington Post.

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Certificate of Vote For President and Vice President of the United States of America 2020. Executive Department State of California.

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Dionne, E.J. (1972, February 28). Ashbrook Shrugged. The Harvard Crimson.

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Flander, J. (2018, November 10). Nixon Couldn’t Stop Pete McCloskey, Republican Who’s For Impeachment. The Washington Star-News.

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Hunter, M. (1974, July 31). 2 G.O.P. Conservatives Appeal for Impeachment. The New York Times.

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Johns, A.L. (2021). Breaking the Eleventh Commandment: Pete McCloskey’s Campaign against the Vietnam War. California History, 98(1), pp. 3-27.

Memorial To Dr. King Debated. (1981, September 15). The New York Times.

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To Agree To H. Con. Res. 80, Authorizing a Bust or Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Be Placed in the Capitol. (Motion Passed). Govtrack.

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3 thoughts on “The Republican Challengers of Richard Nixon

  1. So John Tower was still strongly conservative in the early 1970s? I know he became a Moderate Republican during his later career. Do you have some MC-Index analyses on him for that period?

  2. Tower is still staunchly conservative in the early 70s. I am still working on my revisions, but up into the late 1970s he still scoring in the 80s to 90s. From what I’m seeing, Tower’s most notable diversions from conservatism have been on abortion and that he was voting for foreign aid. During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, however, he could be compared to Ted Cruz.

    1. Huh, wow. As for the issue of abortion, I know that Tower voted against the Hatch-Eagleton Human Life Amendment in 1983 (the GOP evidently was not staunchly pro-life as a party during that time, and the Democrats weren’t all pro-abortion), by which he would’ve already became a Moderate Republican. I dunno if there were any other bills related to abortion voted on in the Senate before that time.

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