WASHINGTON -- Democrats captured gubernatorial victories last night in six states -- including Texas and Florida, two of the year's most highly coveted political prizes.
They pulled off a major upset in Texas, with Democratic state Treasurer Ann Richards winning 52 percent to 48 percent over millionaire rancher Clayton Williams in one of the year's most rough-and-tumble political brawls.
And in Florida, former Sen. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., 60, was declared the victor over Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, 55, in a contest that should assure Democratic control over the 1992 redistricting process, when the state is expected to pick up four House seats. The race, considered an early test of the abortion issue, saw Mr. Chiles, the pro-abortion rights candidate, capturing 55 percent of the vote.
"The gubernatorial races are the story of the election," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "This is where the Democrats have made their major breakthroughs."
Other surprise Democratic victories among the 36 governor's races came in Kansas, where anti-abortion candidate Joan Finney unseated GOP Gov. Mike Hayden; Oklahoma, where Dave Walters was declared an early victor over Republican Bill Price; and Rhode Island, where Republican Gov. Edward D. DiPrete was defeated by Bruce G. Sundlun. In New Mexico, Democrat Bruce King topped Republican Frank Bond to win the seat left open by retiring GOP Gov. Garrey Carruthers.
Voters handed Massachusetts Republican William Weld a surprise victory over conservative Democrat John Silber to give the GOP control of the seat held by departing Democratic governor and former presidential hopeful Michael S. Dukakis.
Ohio Republican George Voinovich beat back Democratic challenger Anthony J. Celebrezze to pick up the seat of departing Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste, who was required to step down by state law. The GOP also picked up an open seat in Vermont, where Richard Snelling captured the seat of retiring Democratic Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, and maintained control of governor's offices in Maine, New Hampshire, Alabama, South Carolina, Wisconsin and South Dakota.
The GOP upsets in Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont, as well as a win for independent candidate Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in Connecticut, gave Democrats a net gain of two governorships in early returns.
Former Senator Weicker, a Republican turned independent, squeaked through with an early win over Democratic and Republican opponents.
Early Democratic victories were projected in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada and Idaho, where all six incumbents retained control.
Races in Illinois, Michigan and Nebraska were too close to call, while early figures from California gave Republican Sen. Pete Wilson the lead. In the state, which could pick up as many as seven House seats in 1992, Mr. Wilson had been given a slight edge over former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in opinion polls.
As one political observer put it: "All governorships are not created equal." The most closely watched contests were in California, Texas and Florida, where the coming 1990 census figures are expected to add a total of 16 congressional seats.
In these three fast-growing states and elsewhere, governors are expected to weigh in heavily in the post-census redistricting battles -- and their support or opposition in redrawing congressional boundaries is seen as critical for the future fortunes of both political parties.
"The critical factor will be who controls the state legislatures and the governorships," said Dr. Thad Beyle, a specialist in gubernatorial politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 23 of the 36 gubernatorial races this year, incumbents were seeking re-election. Still, the anti-incumbency mood that had many longtime members of Congress running scared did not seem to carry much weight on the state level.
Most of the gubernatorial campaigns have tended to stay focused on local issues -- including the economy, taxes and spending, abortion, crime and education. "These are the big-ticket items," said Mr. Sabato. "The races are much more representative of diversity than they are of any unifying themes."
In New England, where a deepening recession worried many voters, the health of state economies was a major concern. Three of the region's governors decided not to seek re-election this year, and Rhode Island's Governor DiPrete suffered a crushing loss at the polls.
Abortion was a key concern in Florida, Texas, Oregon, Minnesota and Kansas. Still, observers said that candidates on both sides of the issue met with equal degrees of success.