Close margin of La. race a new sign of trouble for incumbents

October 08, 1990|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS -- For incumbents, this continues to be the year of living dangerously.

In Louisiana Saturday, three-term Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston narrowly escaped a stunning challenge from State Representative David Duke -- an improbable opponent, whose political baggage included service as the grand wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, ties to neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic groups, fabrication of a war record in Vietnam and embarrassing disclosures that he had once authored a sex manual for women.

Coming just weeks after outsiders won both gubernatorial nominations in Massachusetts and Oklahoma voters approved a ballot initiative that would limit the terms of politicians, Mr. Duke's success in holding Mr. Johnston to a 54-percent-to-44-percent victory represented another warning shot to incumbents stumbling through the embarrassing wreckage of the federal budget negotiations toward next month's off-year congressional elections.

"There's definitely a message bigger than Louisiana here," said Susan Howell, director of the survey research center at the University of New Orleans.

"There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn. These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them."

These feelings of discontent -- which may be further crystallized by the deadlock in Washington that has shut down major parts of the federal government -- already have erupted in several other states.

Although only one incumbent -- scandal-plagued Representative Donald E. "Buz" Lukens, R-Ohio -- has been defeated in a primary this year, several others have suffered through unexpectedly anxious, if not desperate, hours. Veteran politicians as diverse as Arkansas Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton and Democratic Representatives John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and Mike Synar of Oklahoma have been shocked by unexpectedly narrow primary victories.

Mr. Johnston joined their company Saturday. During Election Day, aides confidently predicted that he would win more than 60 percent of the vote and perhaps as much as two-thirds.

But as returns accumulated, they milled through a downtown New Orleans hotel nervous and somber, even after Mr. Johnston crossed the 50 percent barrier needed to avoid a runoff with Mr. Duke. Pollsters here said that Mr. Duke carried between 55 percent and 60 percent of the white vote.

"Voters wanted to send a message," said Bob Mann, Mr. Johnston's campaign spokesman. "And I guess they did."

Much of Mr. Duke's strength appeared to derive from racial hostility among whites. But according to Ms. Howell's surveys, Mr. Duke's support also was attributable to disaffection with government.

In fact, like Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace 20 years ago, Mr. Duke portrayed affirmative action, busing and programs "for the rising welfare underclass" as evidence that government has lost touch with the needs of middle-class taxpayers. His audiences invariably agreed.

"People are just tired of being taxed for these welfare programs," said one woman in suburban New Orleans after voting for Mr. Duke Saturday.

That appeal clearly transcends the South: Boston University President John R. Silber struck some of the same notes while winning the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary last month -- a point that Mr. Duke noted in an interview. For that matter, Ronald Reagan used these themes to help win the presidency in 1980.

Mr. Duke supplemented those shrill conservative notes with classic outsider appeals against the "Washington Establishment."

Running against a consummate Washington insider, Mr. Duke condemned political action committees and called for limits on terms of office.

That message appeals beyond the South, too. Although only Colorado and California will join Oklahoma in voting on term limitation initiatives this year, such measures could sprout across the country in 1992.

"If it passes in California and Colorado, you are going to see grass-roots efforts in a lot of states," said Charles Black, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

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