GOP skid appears to reverse, but Democrats expect election gains

November 04, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Democrats appear headed for relatively modest gains in Tuesday's midterm elections, amid signs that Republicans have begun reversing their potentially disastrous October skid.

Political professionals, analysts and party officials generally agree that Democrats will hold their own in Senate races, pick up about 10 House seats and add perhaps one or two governorships.

On this final weekend of the campaign, an unexpectedly large number of statewide races are still in the tossup category, however, including gubernatorial tests in four of the nation's largest states and at least three Senate elections.

For that reason, the possibility remains that Democrats could record more significant gains, if most of those close contests go their way, or that the election could still yield a net plus for Republicans, if all tip the other way.

In all, 36 states, including Maryland, are holding elections for governor this year. A total of 34 Senate seats are also at stake, as are all 435 House seats, more than 6,140 state legislative seats and thousands of other state and local offices. With Democrats holding a 10-seat majority in the Senate and an 83-seat House advantage, partisan control of Congress will remain in Democratic hands for the next two years, as will a majority of the nation's governorships, in all probability.

"I think it's a regular midterm," said Mary Matalin, chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, referring to the historical tendency for the party out of power in the White House to gain seats in non-presidential elections.

That view is shared by many in both major parties. But the tortuous course of the 1990 campaign, along with the restless mood of the American electorate, has made this anything but a normal election year.

Already, politicians in both parties are concluding that the biggest loser may well be someone whose name is not even on the ballot: President Bush.

Instead of spending the final three days of the campaign jetting coast-to-coast to stump for fellow Republicans, as planned, he'll be in the friendly confines of his adopted home state of Texas, apparently because of concerns that a Bush visit could be harmful to Republican candidates in close races.

"We have no fear of George Bush politically during this election cycle," Ronald H. Brown, the national Democratic chairman, ZTC declared last week.

Even Republicans have felt free to oppose the president, something they were advised to do by the co-chairman of their party's congressional campaign committee.

Mr. Bush's decision last summer to abandon his no-new-taxes pledge cost Republicans a defining campaign issue, while the White House's mishandling of budget politics allowed Democrats to put themselves on the side of average Americans in the fight over raising taxes and paint Republicans as defenders of the rich.

The budget fiasco, in effect, "nationalized" the campaign, touching off a three-week October slide in Mr. Bush's popularity -- and in the standing of Republican candidates around the country. Polling at week's end, however, suggested that a slow recovery for Republicans had begun in some states.

"The hemorrhaging has stopped. To the extent there is movement, it's movement in our favor," said Rick Shelby, political director of the Republican National Senatorial Committee. But it may be too late to repair the damage to some GOP candidates, party politicians say.

In Florida, for example, Gov. Bob Martinez's re-election campaign, of which Mr. Bush's son Jeb is a top official, may have been fatally wounded by White House-approved budget proposals that outraged the state's politically influential senior citizens, noted Michelle Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors' Association.

"If the election were held this past week, we would have lost 20 House seats. Now we'll probably not lose more than 10 or 11," said Rich Galen, a Republican campaign consultant. "A month and a half ago, I would have said we would be doing badly if we lost as many as five."

Republican campaign officials once boasted openly of picking up as many as 15 House seats.

The dramatic change in expectations for both parties is a reminder that, in some ways, this election has not been one seamless campaign at all. Instead, like a Pirandello play, it seemed like six campaigns in search of a theme.

First, there was abortion. The 1989 Supreme Court decision giving states new freedom to restrict abortion helped produce the nation's first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, last November, leading some to predict that the issue would dominate the landscape again this fall.

Then came anti-incumbent fever, spawned by a congressional pay increase, the resignations, under an ethical cloud, of House Speaker Jim Wright and Democratic leader Tony Coelho and the ever-worsening savings-and-loan scandal.

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