FOR THE THIRD TIME in four years, Virginia voters have repudiated Republican right-wingers supported by the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and the fervent followers of Iran-contra personality Oliver North. The key figure in all these confrontations was Sen. John W. Warner. He emerged this time as the overwhelming winner in a primary that should be highly encouraging nationally to the party's mainstream and its presidential nominee, Bob Dole.
Mr. Warner first angered ultra-conservatives in 1993 by opposing (and helping to beat) the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, Michael Farris. Then he drove them to absolute fury by spurning Mr. North's bid for Democrat Charles Robb's Senate seat and giving his support to an independent, thus splitting the Republican vote. He said Mr. North, who had been accused of lying to Congress, was not morally fit for public office.
Virginia's state Republican organization, which, much like Maryland's, is controlled by the far right, vowed to defeat Senator Warner. It rejected him at a state convention June 1 in which Mr. North threw his support to Jim Miller, a Reagan-era budget director who at one time had dismissed Ollie North, a former Marine colonel, as a "fraud." But Senator Warner had taken care to insure the final decision would be made by an open primary in which Democrats and independents could cross over. The result: a 66-34 percent victory for the incumbent that was so one-sided the right wing could not blame it on non-Republicans.
Mr. Warner's triumph came the same week that Senator Dole stood up to the party's right wing by insisting that its anti-abortion plank be linked with a "declaration of tolerance" for different viewpoints. Perhaps, if the GOP is lucky enough, this could mean the start of an era in which the party's center will no longer be intimidated by those on its starboard fringe who are obsessed with doing battle in culture wars.
In Maryland, the Warner triumph should give pause to former gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey and her right-wing followers, who lately have been targeting Annapolis lawmakers who dared to vote against ultra-conservative dictates. The pendulum can swing.