The Blog


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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

New Jersey was the biggest nightmare for socially liberal Republicans. Zimmer, once a conservative, ran a mean and effective campaign against Torricelli until the final weeks. Then he went soft and positive in his TV ads. In one, Zimmer was shown feeding sheep, while his wife, Marry Goodspeed, spoke. "Living on the farm here has really taught us to appreciate how beautiful New Jersey is," she said. "Dick has always voted to protect the environment." When Torricelli's pollster, Mark Mellman, saw the ad, he declared it "insane." Looking at the ad, Mellman said, "most people in New Jersey asked, 'What state are they in?'" Within days, the pollster called Torricelli and assured him he'd won. Zimmer was "going after the shepherd vote," he laughed.

Meanwhile, two socially liberal Republicans lost House seats in New Jersey, while a pro-life conservative, Mike Pappas, won Zimmer's old seat encompassing New Jersey horse country and Princeton. Bill Martini, elected in the 1994 Republican sweep, emphasized his environmental zeal. He's pro-choice and split with House Republicans in backing gun control and a minimum-wage hike. He was endorsed by the Sierra Club. He lost by 3 points. In the district vacated by Torricelli, Republican Kathleen Donovan, a protegee of Gov. Christie Whitman, won the endorsement of the New York Times. She described herself as a social progressive who's pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-environmental protection. Also, she played up the fact that she's a single mother with an adopted child. Donovan's campaign manager labeled her " the right fit" for the district. She lost by 11 points.

In contrast, Pappas, a self-described social conservative, was helped by running in a normally Republican district. But he was hardly a cinch since the votes of GOP moderates were, as Congressional Quarterly put it, "up for grabs." At every joint appearance, Democrat David Del Vecchio began by bringing up the abortion issue and pointing to Pappas's pro-life stance. Pappas didn't waffle, though he preferred to talk about economic issues. " very important part of the coalition I put together was social conservatives," he told me. In the end, enough pro-choice Republicans drifted to Pappas because they liked his conservative economic views. He won by 3 points, proving, he says, that social liberals aren't the wave of the future. "My being elected shows that's not necessarily the case."

So does the election of Ann Northrup, the mother of six kids, in Louisville, Kentucky. "I'm unequivocally pro-life," she says. In 1994, the Republican candidate was moderate Susan Stokes, a pro-choice state legislator. She irritated conservatives, provoked a pro-lifer to run as an independent, and lost to Democrat Mike Ward -- despite the GOP sweep across the country. This year, Northrup attacked Ward for voting against the partial-birth abortion ban. "It wasn't how I began every speech, but I was unequivocal there was no excuse for that vote," she says. Northrup's nomination precluded a third- party candidate, but alarmed pro-choice and moderate Republicans. "There was a decided group who started out with resentment because they disliked the religious Right. But those people came back to me," Northrup says, "because I was right enough for them on other issues." A Catholic and a state rep., she won by less than 1 point.

What are the lessons from the 1996 debacle for economically conservative and socially liberal Republicans? One is that their position on abortion may hurt more than it helps. True, states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island aren't likely to elect pro-lifers. But pro-life Republicans are more intense about their issue than pro-choicers are. As Mark Shields noted in the Washington Post, there are millions more singleissue voters who oppose abortion than favor it. And in the GOP, pro-choice Republicans are more likely to vote for a pro-life candidate than vice versa.

Two other points. One is the misconception about the gender gap. "It has nothing to do with abortion and social issues," insists Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell. "The big gap is on things like the Contract with America and ending welfare -- spending issues." Thus, social liberals might have fared better with women if they'd moderated their economic conservatism. Zimmer did. And while he lost, he wiped out his gender gap. Weld didn't. He played up his economic libertarianism and faced a bloated gender gap.