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  Bill Simon's Loss Doesn't Spell Doom for Social Conservatives
by W. James Antle III
9 November 2002

Liberal Republicans would have fared just as poorly in California's gubernatorial race, and they have.

The 2002 midterm elections went better for the Republicans than even many conservative observers (such as this writer) had expected. Among the lessons learned is that President George W. Bush does have some coat tails after all and thus can make a difference on behalf of his party’s candidates when he is willing to expend the political capital, particularly in red states. Republicans even did well in many blue states, winning gubernatorial elections in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.

This hasn’t prevented some people from cherry picking the results to glean some rather counterintuitive lessons from the rare Democratic victories. Most common is the assertion that Republican Bill Simon’s loss to the awful and unpopular Gov. Gray Davis somehow proves the case for Riordanism – writer Steve Sailer’s term for the idea that nominating liberal candidates who emulate Democratic policy positions is the way to improve Republicans’ electoral prospects – and is attributable to the sinister influences of the religious right. Riordanism is of course named after former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who was recruited by GOP heavyweights to run for governor but was defeated by Simon in the Republican primary. Proponents of Riordanism confidently argue that Riordan would have beaten Davis if he had been the nominee.

Even some right of center pundits have repeated this claim. Radley Balko has faulted the “GOP radicals” and “far right” that preferred Simon to Riordan. Andrew Sullivan also indicated on his blog that we would be looking at Gov.-elect Riordan right now if the California GOP “hadn’t allowed itself to become captive to the hard right” and that Republicans must learn that “religious right conservatism… is poison.”

This is a bizarre interpretation of the California governor’s race. Simon won a respectable 42 percent of the vote to Davis’ 48 percent, a much closer result than many expected. He hardly ran as some sort of stand-in for Pat Robertson, rarely mentioning social issues during the general election campaign. The only time gay rights came up was during a brief controversy over a Log Cabin Club survey that was apparently filled out without the candidate’s participation and an advertisement targeting socially conservative Hispanic voters. The Democrats mentioned Simon’s opposition to abortion more than the candidate himself. In neither case did Simon take positions outside the mainstream. Suggestions to the contrary are hardly credible – in fact, one of the Republicans who first approached Simon with the idea that he should run for governor was Riordan, before he got into the race himself.

It is also by no means clear that Riordan would have done much better than Simon. Simon’s more recent campaign missteps may make it difficult to recall, but Riordan lost the GOP gubernatorial primary in large part because he ran a horrible campaign. He was already drawing attack ads from the Davis campaign and was actively alienating his base, with mistakes including unfavorable comments about former Gov. George Deukmejian, who is second only to Ronald Reagan as an icon among Golden State Republicans. Failure to turn out one’s base is at least as likely to result in electoral defeat as failure to win over swing voters.

Liberal Republicans have not fared better than conservatives as candidates in California. Conservative Bruce Herschensohn ran ahead of moderate John Seymour when they both ran for U.S. Senate in 1992, even though Seymour already held the seat as an interim appointee. Moderate Rep. Tom Campbell, so outraged by his 1992 primary loss to Herschensohn that he co-founded the anti-religious right Republican Majority Coalition, was seen by some as the sort of pro-choice social liberal the GOP needed to win. But he won a smaller percentage of the vote in the general election than Herschensohn when he finally did get the GOP Senate nomination in 2000.

Dan Lungren and Matt Fong lost races for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, but were able to win statewide office running on conservative platforms in previous bids during the 1990s. Gov. Pete Wilson may have been a moderate, but he won in part because of strong conservative positions on affirmative action and immigration, issues recent GOP nominees have run away from. The last Republican to win statewide in California was outgoing Secretary of State Bill Jones, who is to the right of Riordan and was not on the ballot this year following an unsuccessful run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The strongest Republican candidate for statewide office in 2002 was pro-life state senator Tom McClintock, who ran an aggressively conservative campaign and came within half a percentage point of being elected state controller.

The national results offer an even more conclusive refutation of the idea that social liberalism necessarily constitutes political salvation. The GOP’s most stunning upsets came in Georgia, where former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed is the state party chairman and Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss stressed his social conservatism. Social issues were pivotal in Missouri’s tight Senate race and in Minnesota the eloquently pro-life Norm Coleman upset Walter Mondale. The only incumbent Republican senator to lose Tuesday night was Arkansas’ Tim Hutchinson, whose Christian conservative base was demoralized by his decision to divorce his wife of 29 years and marry a younger former staff member. Democrat Mark Pryor, son of former Sen. David Pryor, emphasized that he was a family man and to the right of the national party on social issues.

David Frum, writing in National Review On-Line, asked “…who will be surprised if it turns out that one more time the loyal core of the GOP prove to be regular church attenders: the much-dreaded Christian Right? The same Christian Right that is always supposedly about to drag the Republican Party down to ignominy and defeat?”

This is not to suggest that the religious right represents majority opinion on every issue, or that there aren’t areas where Republicans would do better with less socially conservative candidates. Nor should the California GOP adduce from this year’s gubernatorial race that Simon “wasn’t right-wing enough and immediately nominate Oral Roberts” for the next election cycle, as Balko sarcastically suggested on his blog. But traditional morality and cultural conservatism are not the sure election losers some commentators try to make them out to be. If they were, the 2002 election would not have gone nearly as well for the GOP as it did, and 1994 surely wouldn’t have happened.

Bill Simon’s defeat is as disappointing to conservative Republicans with high hopes for him as earlier losses by Jack Kemp and Bret Schundler. His was a flawed campaign, but let us not automatically assume that those flaws included his ideas and values.

Email W. James Antle III