Voters oust selectively on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 07, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- America's voters, who supposedly were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore, proved to be only selectively in a mood to throw the rascals out in yesterday's off-year congressional and gubernatorial elections.

They took their ire out chiefly on the Republicans in governors' races, electing Democrats in at least six previously GOP-held states -- Texas, Florida, Rhode Island, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Texas and Florida were particularly big prizes, because together they expect to get seven new House seats in reapportionment over which the governor may have a critical role.

At the same time, though, Republicans took over Democratic-held governorships in Ohio, Massachusetts and Vermont and a Republican-turned-independent, former Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, won a previously Democratic governorship in Connecticut.

In all but three of these ten states, however, the incumbent governor was not seeking re-election, either by choice or law. Sitting governors bounced were Republicans Bob Martinez in Florida, who lost to former Sen. Lawton Chiles, Mark Hayden of Kansas, beaten by Democratic State Treasurer Joan Finney, and Edward D. DiPrete of Rhode Island, defeated by Democratic businessman Bruce Sundlun.

The biggest gubernatorial prize of all is California, which itself will get seven new House seats. There, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson was running neck and neck with Democrat Dianne Feinstein for the seat now held by Republican George Deukmejian. Six other governors' races also were undecided, four held by Democrats and two by Republicans.

In the U.S. Senate, only one seat held by an incumbent seeking reelection was in peril, that of Republican Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, challenged by Democrat Paul Wellstone. Late last night Wellstone claimed victory. And in the House of Representatives, with all 435 seats up and 406 incumbents seeking reelection, only a handful were turned out as the Democrats increased their 83-seat margin by at least seven.

All this added up to a mere whimper of the anti-incumbency mood that supposedly had the voters in its grip. The mixed result seemed to match public confusion over which party deserved the blame for the slipping economy and legislative gridlock.

While abortion, the savings-and-loan scandal, the environment and other highly touted issues did have an impact in specific races, none generated any sweeping sentiment dominating the day's voting. For example, in Iowa, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin won reelection as a strong pro-choice candidate, and so did Republican Gov. Terry Branstad embracing the pro-life position.

In the Senate and House contests, the power of incumbency once again proved more decisive than all the talk about disgusted voters being fed up and ready to take it out on the ins. But a number of incumbents who survived had very close calls -- including Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

To President Bush, who campaigned frenetically, the voters just said no. The results presage another two years of contention between the White House and Capitol Hill, and a Democratic Party in control of at least 32 state houses headed into the presidential election year of 1992.

More important, the Democrats after a decade in the wilderness appear to have found their footing, thanks largely to Bush's stumbling over his own no-tax pledge and his resistance to higher taxes on the wealthy. Yesterday's results produced a bumper crop of Democratic winners eyeing 1992, including Govs. Mario Cuomo of New York and Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Al Gore of Tennessee.

President Bush can console himself that the incumbent party historically averages losses in midterm elections considerably greater than those the Republicans sustained yesterday. But with the Democrats already so strong going into the elections, the pickup of a handful of House seats means he will have an even tougher time with Congress now.

Most House Republicans fearful that Bush's flip-flop on taxes would cost them their seats are no doubt breathing easier today. But they aren't liable to forget that his actions gave them some nervous moments as they faced their angry constituents. And that fact won't make life any smoother for him on Capitol Hill, either, in the next two years.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.

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