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National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University®


The Battle For The Suburbs

GOP Gets A Battle In God-Country Land

Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday, October 16, 1996

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MELBOURNE, Fla. - Even in this land of God and country and the cult of the Right Stuff, even where Democrats are seen as enemies of Old South values and space-age spending, Republicans are feeling new strains.

Even in a place where, unlike moderate northern suburbs, Newt is not a dirty word and GOP wannabes openly seek the Christian Coalition's blessing, the party's candidates won't run up their usual huge margins. They're not likely to lose; the subtropical sun should shine on Bob Dole's campaign through Election Day.

But in Brevard County, just enough voters seem turned off by the Republicans' image of insensitivity - and just enough newcomers have begun to change the face of the community - that Democrats have a chance to be at least competitive again. The Democratic National Committee has opened its first Brevard office. Some unusually qualified candidates have emerged. And, in a reverse of a troubling trend for Democrats, some Republicans are switching parties - to protest what they view as intolerance by the religious right.

Dole knew he'd be slaughtered in "white-haired" southern Florida, where the elderly and now their daughters - the so-called soccer moms - are worried about social programs. But Dole's slippage in the younger central region, anchored by Orlando and the Kennedy Space Center, has forced the party to spend more money in what should have been a slam-dunk state. Since that has meant less for other battlegrounds, the consequences are enormous: If Dole carries Brevard by single digits, he will lose this state - and the country. If arch-conservatives such as freshman Rep. Dave Weldon are punished for their ideological zeal, the Republican Party could lose Congress.

It's amazing the GOP has any trouble here.

This is the Space Coast, a place where prayer and patriotism are as much a part of life as the seismic rumble of a space shuttle's rockets or the snap of an alligator's jaw.

This is also a suburb where the most jarring achievements of man co-exist with a fragile system of nature. A place where the civilian and the secular are slowly nudging the old rural-religious-military order. A place where Operation Rescue opened a training center; where police had to pry apart opposing demonstrators and doctors had to be escorted secretly into a clinic in flak jackets.

Politically, the Space Coast is a Republican place. Until the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements made Democrat a dirty word, Republican had been a southern epithet since Reconstruction. But the transformation, which picked up steam in the '60s and gained new speed with attacks by urban Democrats on NASA's budget, became a formal revolt after the election of Ronald Reagan. Now, an R next to a candidate's name all but guarantees a win.

But change is in the air, thanks to a new political dynamic created by shifts in the defense and aerospace industry. With cuts in federal spending, many aerospace manufacturers have been forced to diversify, bouncing back from the Challenger disaster and the end of the Cold War. And a growing number of workers, from moderate northern suburbs, have no strong ties to conservative military interests.

No, the new workers aren't much like the techies of Silicon Valley who swarmed out of Stanford and stayed true to the liberal university ethos. But many of the Space Coast firms, such as Harris Corp., are attracting young engineers who are politically independent. So are their wives. When they lived on Long Island, they voted mostly Republican but not always. They are used to good schools and, unlike many of their new neighbors, willing to pay for a wide array of services if they feel they're getting value.

Their presence, along with an increasing number of nonmilitary retirees, is one reason Clinton stands a good chance of taking this state's 25 electoral votes, something no Democrat has done since 1976. Dole is in trouble for the same reasons he is in more moderate suburbs - he's seen as too old, too uncaring, too much of a Washington insider. But, ironically, his problems here are complicated by his failure to excite many religious conservatives who see him as an insincere spokesman for their causes. They may stay home.

The lesson for the GOP, as Brevard Republican leader Kevin McKeown sees it, is that the party can't afford to be seen as intolerant, narrow-minded or overly in the thrall of religious extremists.

Not that McKeown doesn't toe a hard line in his own politics. As a candidate, he actively sought the support of right-wing religious groups, which are so powerful they can control most low-turnout party primaries. (Weldon, with 24 percent, won a seven-way race in 1994 over many better-known candidates.) McKeown opposes abortion without exception. He says any community should be able to ban books, magazines, movies or plays that a clear majority deems morally offensive. He also says government regulates too much, especially over land use and guns ownership.

But McKeown, who went to high school in Floral Park and attended West Point, believes that people with other views should be welcomed in his party. If not, the GOP might be able to continue for the time being to win in Brevard and other conservate enclaves. But it won't be able to make Florida safe for national and statewide candidates by running up the score here.

Since he contends correctly that no party can succeed with our-way-or-else factions, McKeown says he has encouraged candidates who support abortion rights and environmental protection and spending more on public education.

"They call me a RINO - Republican in name only," McKeown said of the hard-liners. "But I think it's the way to make us stronger."

Although he is a devout Catholic, McKeown has asked those delivering the prayers before party functions to please keep them as nonsectarian as possible. "I told one member that I believed Jesus wouldn't mind if the reason you didn't mention Him by name was out of respect for someone else's beliefs," McKeown recalled. Few, however, heed his re-quest; some have become annoyed with him and delivered fire-and-brimstone sermons at Republican executive commit-tee meetings. He told me of a woman who refused to support a candidate for party office who was black and whose wife was Jewish. "These were honest, loyal Republicans," McKeown told me. "But she said, they're not our kind of people,' and that was that."

McKeown claims he has experienced intolerance himself, partly because he has encouraged diversity in a stiffly conservative party and because he is a Catholic. "These kinds of attitudes," he says, "just drive people away."

What would play as a message of moderation on Long Island would be too liberal here. What the GOP needs to do, as some of its leaders know, is to find a balance somewhere between the right and the far right. A balance between an intense passion for conservative causes - which is essential to win in Brevard and other southern suburban counties - and outright intolerance of other views.

Democrats also need an image make-over. The nomination of John Byron to take on Weldon - a former Long Is-lander and physician who is as conservative as any member of Congress - shows the Democrats understand the challenge.

Taking a page from the Republicans, Byron has campaigned as a friend of veterans and NASA, the elderly and environment. When accused of being a liberal, Byron, a retired naval officer and now an aerospace executive, says: "I guess I'm about as liberal as your typical nuclear submarine commander." If that doesn't settle that, being the only Democratic challenger to receive the endorsement of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars usually does. This is a different kind of Democrat. If Byron finds more money, he could pull an upset.

Weldon, who once formed his own Christian Coalition-like group called the Space Coast Family Forum, makes no apologies for the Newt Gingrich revolution or his commitment to the religious right. When I said that many Republicans are running away from both, for fear of being labeled extremists, Weldon says, "Not me. I'm pro-life. I'm socially and fiscally conservative."

Still, even Weldon appears to be making some adjustments to the new political winds. In campaign literature, he makes no mention of his no-way-no-how position on abortion or the huge cuts in entitlements he voted for. Instead, he talks a lot about what he has delivered for the county.

He hasn't sold out and flip-flopped up and down Brevard's 70 miles of beaches, as so many vulnerable Republicans have done, especially in suburbia. But, obviously, even a man so publicly committed to a strict moral and fiscal code has decided to make some concessions to secular political concerns so he can survive to fight for what he believes. Weldon has decided to bend - just enough to win.

Copyright, 1996, Newsday. Reprinted with permission.