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.

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.

But Zimmer caused himself a different problem. By softening his economic views and running away from Gingrich and congressional Republicans, Zimmer lost some of his Republican base. Rick Shaftan, a New Jersey pollster, says Zimmer's support eroded badly when he stressed his moderation. This is what Democratic consultant Bob Shrum calls the "internal contradiction" of being economically conservative and socially liberal. If you trim your conservatism, you stand to lose GOP support. The same may happen if you emphasize your social liberalism. Worse, socially liberal Republicans "appear insincere because they're all over the map," says Mellman. "They don't fit in a category."

Their admirers are not giving up, however. "Nothing happened on November 5 that leads me to believe that [being a socially liberal Republican] is a recipe for political death," says GOP consultant Jay Smith. To the extent these Republicans lost, says James Pinkerton, "it's unfortunate and it'll hurt the party." The GOP will be a minority party so long as its socially liberal wing atrophies, according to Pinkerton, one of the chief promoters of Weld-type Republicanism. I don't know about that. The burden of proof is not on Republicans in general, but on Weld and his ilk. They've got to succeed electorally to have a large role in the party. In 1996, they didn't.

By Fred Barnes

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