Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and Toby Moffett memorably punched and counter-punched their way across Connecticut in a race for U.S. Senate in 1982, a nationally significant clash of a maverick Republican and liberal Democrat at the midpoint of Ronald Reagan’s first term.
As David S. Broder of the Washington Post wrote after a visit to Hartford, it was “the race that had everything, the wildest, most wide-open Senate campaign in the country.” It had bits of ugliness and humor, touches of Hollywood and an appearance by Flip-Flop the Clown.
Moffett was unsure what to expect the other day, when he called a number given to him by Gov. Ned Lamont, assured that the call would be welcomed. A phone rang in a house in Old Lyme, a woman answered and Moffett said, “This is Toby.”
Claudia Weicker, the former first lady of Connecticut, screamed and laughed when Moffett identified himself. The invitation came instantly: “We’d love to see you.”
Moffett visited on a Saturday near summer’s end. It was a social occasion that Claudia, once the chief of staff to a Senate subcommittee, suggested would be unthinkable in most quarters of hyper-polarized Washington D.C.
It’s been 37 years, half a lifetime for Moffett.
Moffett was 37 when he opened his campaign run against Weicker. Moffett was one of the Watergate Babies elected to Congress after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and a co-founder with Ralph Nader of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Weicker was a 51-year-old Republican undefeated in races for first selectman of Greenwich, General Assembly, Congress and the U.S. Senate.
Moffett turned 75 last month. Weicker is 88.
“He was here for a couple of hours, and we had a great time,” Weicker said.
“We just had a great talk,” Moffett said. Then he added something he never would say while competing with Weicker for liberal votes in 1982: “We’re pretty much on the same page ideologically.”
Their 1982 race came at a time of tumult in both parties. Democrats were in the midst of a generational and ideological struggle. Encouraged by progressives, Moffett nearly ran for governor against William A. O’Neill, a conservative Democrat.
Moffett said he and Weicker talked a little about the what ifs.
“I told him at one point I had definitely decided to run for governor,” Moffett said.
What if Weicker faced a primary, as once seemed likely?
Weicker’s re-nomination to a third term by Republicans never was a sure thing. Republicans were moving to the right under Reagan, and Weicker had grown politically isolated with the losses of Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in 1978 and Jacob Javits of New York in 1980.
Weicker was the only Republican senator to vote against Reagan’s first budget in 1981. (His differences with the president were destined to grow sharper. In 1984, Weicker would lead the opposition to Reagan’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to allow formal periods of vocal prayer in public schools.)
Prescott Bush Jr., the older brother of George H.W. Bush, challenged Weicker for the nomination at the GOP convention, ensuring that the Reagan-Bush White House would be watching Connecticut — and laying bare conservatives’ anger with Weicker’s politics and personality.
In a nominating speech for Bush recounted by Broder, Hartford Councilman John O’Connell described Weicker as a politician of “confrontation and obstruction” and a man “who will tolerate no opinion other than his own . . . and who claims he will win by being a better Democrat than Toby Moffett.”
Roger Eddy, the state party’s treasurer, returned the fire on behalf of Weicker and what Eddy saw as a dying New England tradition of tolerating a diversity of ideologies in the Grand Old Party.
“Make no mistake about it, this is more than a Republican convention — it is a Republican trial, an inquisition,” Eddy said. “A few angry people have defined Republicanism in their own narrow, intolerant image, and whoever does not accept their definition as Republican gospel will, if they have their way, be burned at the political stake.”
Weicker would be hanged in effigy as governor in 1991, but was he not martyred as a senator in 1982. He won 65 percent of the convention vote.
Bush easily met the 20-percent threshold of qualifying for a primary then in effect. But he abruptly quit the race days later, prompting White House political adviser Ed Rollins to tell Reagan in a memo that Weicker “has finally cleared what may have been his most difficult hurdle.”
While conceding that “Weicker’s position in relation to the Administration remains tenuous,” Rollins nonetheless told the president “there was almost universal sentiment among pollsters that Weicker would stand a better chance than Bush of defeating Moffett in the general election.”
The memo is one the Reagan Library documents available on line.
Chase Untermeyer, an aide to the vice president, wrote in a diary he later published that Prescott Bush’s decision was a difficult time for the Bushes, but the preferable outcome: “Weicker may be an insufferable ass, but a worse day would be to elevate a cynosure of liberal activist youth of the 1960s and 1970s.”
Moffett said he talked to Weicker about the difficulty of running against the last of the northeastern liberal Republicans.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking, that I could run to the left of you. There wasn’t a lot of space there,’ ” Moffett said.
Moffett tried to characterize Weicker’s shift from center-right to the left as flip flops, an argument brought to life in campaign appearances by Flip-Flop the Clown. Moffett also was helped by Robert Redford, while George C. Scott did a Pattonesque TV commercial spot for Weicker, growling, “If you want a senator with guts . . . vote to reelect Lowell Weicker.”
Weicker won with 50.4 percent the vote to 46.1 percent for Moffett in a four-way field that also included Lucien DiFazio of the Conservative Party and James A. Lewis, a Libertarian.
The 1982 race would echo for years in Connecticut, connecting to contemporary politics with few degrees of separation.
On the same Democratic ballot line with Moffett was Joseph I. Lieberman, the loser of a 1980 race for Congress who was making a comeback as attorney general in 1982. Six years later, Lieberman defeated Weicker, running to the right of the senator.
Moffett’s run for Senate opened a congressional seat won by Republican Nancy Johnson, whose long career ended with Chris Murphy defeating her in 2006. The unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq were factors.
The same year, Ned Lamont won a Democratic primary as an anti-war candidate against Lieberman, who stayed in the race as an independent and was re-elected, even if he was permanently driven from the Democratic Party in Connecticut.
With an uncertain base, Lieberman didn’t run in 2012, and Murphy won the open seat. Last year, a get-out-the-vote effort organized by Murphy in his re-election to a second term also contributed to Lamont’s win as governor.
After his defeat by Lieberman, Weicker left the Republican Party and was elected governor in 1990 under the banner of his own organization, A Connecticut Party. The progressive Democrats who wanted a champion of tax reform finally found one in Weicker, not Moffett.
Weicker is the last Republican to a win U.S. Senate race in Connecticut, and the GOP has not won a U.S. House seat here since 2006.
“The Republican Party has become totally irrelevant in the state of Connecticut,” Weicker said in an interview last week. “I think that’s the problem. That’s not to say the Democrats are perfect, but that’s not my problem. I think that you are going to have reconfigure the Republican Party from scratch.”
Until the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016, the GOP seemed on the path to a solid comeback in Connecticut, at least in the General Assembly. Republicans won an 18-18 tie in the state Senate and came within five votes of a majority in the House.
Lamont won the governor’s race by defeating Republican Bob Stefanowski, a political newcomer who promised to eliminate the income tax passed under Weicker and roll back the clock to 1990. Democrats won solid majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, making their first legislative gains since 2008.
“I think it’s clear the Republicans in Connecticut haven’t changed anything, and they haven’t put forth any good candidates,” Weicker said. “I think Ned Lamont is going to be a very good governor.”
Moffett challenged O’Neill for governor in 1986. He fell short of qualifying for a primary. His last race came in 1990, running for the open 5th Congressional seat and losing to Republican Gary Franks. The incumbent, U.S. Rep. John G. Rowland, opted to run for governor, losing to Weicker.
Moffett and his wife, Myra, have a summer home in the Stony Creek section of Branford and live in Washington. Long at odds with Nader, he is now a lobbyist at Mayer Brown, a global law firm with a lobbying practice in D.C. He also is an informal adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
His visit with Weicker was a consequence of Lamont stopping at Mix Design, a gift shop on the Guilford Green owned by one of Moffett’s daughters, Maggie Farrell. Moffett said Lamont recorded a 20-second video message for him in which he said, “I had dinner with Lowell and Claudia. You should go see him.”
Moffett and Weicker both backed Howard Dean for president in 2004, but Moffett said they had not had a substantial conversation since their race. Moffett brought Weicker a gift — a copy of his type-written plan for defeating Weicker, dated Jan. 3, 1982.
On the cover he wrote: “Lowell, this is what you overcame. Again, congrats.”