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You May Not Know This, but the Media's Favorite Republicans Crashed and Burned in 1996

11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By FRED BARNES
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For years now, economically conservative but socially liberal Republicans -- you know, the Wilson, Whitman & Weld brigades -- have been touted as politically perfect for the 1990s and beyond. The idea was these Republicans had unique appeal to women and independents and young people and yuppies and moderates and some Democrats. They could win in regions hostile to traditional conservatives like the Northeast and West Coast. They could even capture Democratic strongholds. Indeed, a few have, notably Gov. Bill Weld in Massachusetts, who argues as strenuously for gay rights as he does for spending cuts. But in 1996, running against the mildest of Democratic tides, economically conservative and socially liberal Republicans took a beating. They lost race after race. So it turns out they're not the wave of the future, or even the present, after all.

Weld, defeated by incumbent John Kerry in the country's most watched Senate contest, was the biggest loser. His presidential prospects have suddenly dimmed. Weld has enormous personal charm, campaigns exuberantly, and is unabashed about his social liberalism. He's for gay marriage and supported President Clinton's veto of the ban on partial-birth abortion. Did this help him among female voters, as promised? Not so you'd notice. His gender gap -- the failure of women to vote Republican as much as men -- was 9 points, nearly twice as large as Sen. Strom Thurmond's in South Carolina (5 points). In fact, the Weld gap among women was the same as that for Jesse Helms, the Senate's most unswerving social conservative, in North Carolina.

Of course, there are many reasons why Weld lost, admirers of GOP social liberals will tell you. And they're right. Yes, Clinton beat Bob Dole in Massachusetts by 34 points (Weld lost by 7), creating a Democratic landslide. Yes, the Republican party, with glowering Newt Gingrich as congressional leader, is held in minimum regard in the Northeast. Yes, Kerry was well financed, attractive, and reasonably popular. Yes, voters could have both Kerry as senator and Weld as governor -- but only by making sure Kerry didn't give up his Senate seat to Weld. And, yes, Massachusetts is an incorrigibly Democratic state. All this, says polling expert Everett Carll Ladd, was "too much for Weld to overcome." Yes, again, but that misses the point. The hullabaloo over economically conservative, socially liberal Republicans was based on their supposed singular ability to overcome just such odds, while also blurring the GOP's otherwise harshly conservative image. But on November 5, it didn't work out that way, quite the contrary.

Rep. Peter Torkildsen, a Weld clone, was ousted from his House seat on the North Shore of Massachusetts. In New Jersey, Rep. Dick Zimmer, a moderate who backed partial-birth abortion and voted against the Republican budget, lost by 10 points to Democrat Bob Torricelli. In Rhode Island, a pro-choice, pro- gun-control woman, state treasurer Nancy Mayer, was promoted by national Republican officials as having a real shot at the open Senate seat. She lost by nearly two to one. In Maine, a socially moderate woman, Susan Collins, won the Senate race, but her opponent was a tired Democratic hack, Joe Brennan. In the California district that includes Malibu, pro-choice Republican Rich Sybert, a former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson, was favored to win the open House seat. He lost by 8 points.

There's a flip side to the failure of economically conservative, socially liberal candidates: Republicans who are conservative economically and socially often won, even when challenged by economically conservative but socially liberal Democrats. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, famous for bringing crude drawings to the Senate floor to illustrate the horror of partialbirth abortion, was regarded as vulnerable in a state that's trending Democratic. He won. In Kansas, Rep. Sam Brownback knocked off Sen. Sheila Frahm, a pro-choice moderate, in the primary, angering some moderates and women and a lot of the media. His general election foe was the Democratic equivalent of Bill Weld, a pro-choice stockbroker named Jill Docking who pledged she'd never vote for a tax hike. She made an issue of Brownback's unflinching social conservatism. Brownback won by 11 points, no doubt aided by the strong Republican surge behind Dole in Kansas. But Brownback also wound up with a smaller (7 points) gender gap than Weld or Susan Collins (9 points) or Pat Roberts (9 points), the Republican who won the other Senate seat in Kansas.