John Anderson, liberal Republican who challenged Reagan but may have helped him win, dies at 95

Anderson broke with the Republican Party in 1968 to support an anti-discrimination law, bested Reagan in a 1980 head-to-head debate, and ultimately supported Democrat Walter Mondale in the next presidential race

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 2:51pm

John Anderson, a former Republican congressman who challenged the party’s conservative drift by taking on its chief symbol, Ronald Reagan, and ran for president as an independent in 1980, died on Sunday. He was 95.

Anderson had been ill for some time, family friend Dan Johnson said in a telephone interview. Anderson’s wife, Keke, and his daughter Diane were at his side when he died in Washington, Diane Anderson said by phone.

Anderson finished a distant third with almost 7 per cent of the vote in the 1980 presidential election but gave almost 6 million voters an alternative to the conservative Reagan – who won the election – and the unpopular Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

He’s the smartest guy in Congress, but he insists on voting his conscience instead of party
Gerald Ford, describing Anderson in 1973

But Anderson did not win a single precinct and political analysts said he ultimately may have contributed to Reagan’s electoral landslide by taking votes from Carter.

Anderson’s first venture into politics came in 1956 when he was elected as a state attorney in Illinois. In 1960, he won the first of 10 terms in the US of Representatives running as a conservative.

He later moved to the left, breaking with conservatives in 1968 by voting for a bill to outlaw racial discrimination in housing.

Anderson served as chairman of the House Republican Conference for the next 10 years even as he became more critical of Republican President Richard Nixon, especially on his handling of the Vietnam War. He was one of the first Republican House members to call for Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal.

“He’s the smartest guy in Congress, but he insists on voting his conscience instead of party,” Republican US Representative Gerald Ford, who later become president, said of Anderson in 1973.

In 1980, with Carter low in the opinion polls and his administration mired in the Iran hostage crisis, many Republicans, including Anderson, jumped into the party’s presidential primaries for a chance to oppose the Democrat in the November election.

Reagan, who had come close to winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, quickly moved to the front of the race, with his main opponent being former UN ambassador and future president George H.W. Bush.

Anderson dropped out of the Republican primaries in the spring of 1980 and announced he was running as an independent. When he entered the race, he was enthusiastically greeted as an alternative to the major parties, getting around 25 per cent support in at least one poll.

But his poll numbers began sliding, even though he was seen as having bested Reagan in surveys after a televised debate with the Republican presidential nominee.

Everything he wanted to prevent unfortunately came to pass
John Anderson’s daughter Diane, on the state of the Republican Party

Carter boycotted that debate and refused to face Reagan if Anderson was included. Carter finally agreed to a debate with Reagan shortly before the election, when the sponsoring League of Women Voters agreed not to invite Anderson.

Four years later, Anderson’s break with conservative Republicans was complete and he supported Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, who lost to Reagan in a landslide.

Born in Rockford, Illinois, on February 15, 1922, Anderson was educated at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Harvard Law School. He served in the Second World War and joined the foreign service, stationed in Germany, his family said in a statement.

After his presidential defeat, Anderson became a visiting professor at various universities, wrote extensively and served on many boards including FairVote, a voting rights organisation formerly known as the Centre for Voting and Democracy.

In the 2000 presidential election, Anderson was seen as a possible presidential candidate for the Reform Party founded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, but he ended up endorsing Ralph Nader.

Diane Anderson said her father believed the two-party system was broken and was appalled by what happened with the Republican Party.

“Everything he wanted to prevent unfortunately came to pass,” she said.