Political issues will stay alive Senate may suffer, Bush may gain with blacks

October 15, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- And now . . . Clarence Thomas, campaign issue.

The lurid Thomas confirmation battle will finally end with today's close Senate vote. But regardless of the outcome, the issues of sexism and racism that exploded into public view over the past few days are likely to reverberate in election campaigns throughout this fall and into next year's presidential campaign.

"This thing will not go away," predicted Robert Goodman, a Republican media consultant in Baltimore, noting that last weekend's hearings had left an indelible impression on millions of voters who stayed glued to their television sets for hours.

Even before the senators cast their votes on President Bush's controversial Supreme Court nominee, the public appeared to have passed harsh judgment on the Senate itself, the latest in a growing line of potential threats to the re-election of congressional incumbents next year.

For the best-known incumbent of all, George Bush, the Thomas fight may well have strengthened his attractiveness among black voters, the most loyal bloc of Democratic voters in recent decades. Despite keeping a relatively low profile at the height of the Thomas furor, Mr. Bush stood behind his nominee when Judge Thomas accused the Senate of "lynching" him.

At the same time, Mr. Bush's relationship with female voters will almost certainly suffer, especially among those independent-minded swing voters in the under-50 age bracket, part of the largest, most volatile and highly sought-after sector of the electorate. The president's opposition to abortion, as abortion rights are increasingly under siege in the courts, had already undercut past support from many voters in this group.

"My impression is that the gender gap has widened," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster, referring to the historical tendency of women to vote for Mr. Bush less heavily than males.

In the aftermath of the Thomas fight, analysts predicted that candidates would now have to find ways to demonstrate their concern about the issue of sexual harassment or face rejection from the voters.

"Anybody not paying attention to it will pay at the polls," predicted Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster.

Sexual harassment is likely to be added to the checklist of questions that the news media and voters pose in scrutinizing the private lives of candidates for public office, a list that already includes items ranging from marital fidelity to the use of illicit drugs.

And the far-reaching effects of the confirmation battle could, ultimately, come together in ways that are only beginning to be seen, perhaps creating an entirely new wave of political candidates for whom the issue of society's treatment of women is the central focus.

"It may mean that there are even more women candidates running, saying that something has to be done," suggested Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster.

Events of the past few days could serve to reinforce Republican arguments that the Democratic majority in Congress should be replaced by a Republican one in next year's election, some analysts said.

By Sunday, 60 percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC-TV poll said they disapproved of the Senate's handling of the matter, an 18-point increase over five days.

A New York Times-CBS poll taken Sunday night and released yesterday showed that seventy-three percent of Americans said that the Judiciary Committee had treated Anita Hill, Judge Thomas' accuser, fairly, and 66 percent said it had treated the judge fairly. But fifty-nine percent of those polled said that the questions and the testimony in the hearings went "too far" for a public forum.

A ballot initiative next month in the state of Washington is likely to be the first test of the anti-incumbent sentiment that could finally reach critical mass in next year's congressional elections. The Washington measure would require officeholders in that state, including members of Congress, to retire after six years.

Strategists with close ties to the White House said that Mr. Bush was likely to use the Thomas fight to reinforce his argument that voters should throw out Democratic senators and congressmen next year. But they were less certain about how strongly Mr. Bush would push for additional support from blacks.

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