The Natives Are Restless

November 07, 1991

The good news for incumbent elected officials is that on Tuesday voters in Washington state defeated a term limitation proposal. The bad news is that numerous incumbents running for re-election Tuesday were defeated. In the most-watched single contest, the incumbent triumphed because voters regarded his challenger as the insider.

That was in the Pennsylvania special election for U.S. Senate. Democrat Harris Wofford, a little-known surprise appointee to the seat last spring, defeated Republican challenger, Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general and former two-term governor. Senator Wofford ran as "interim senator" and wrapped the Bush administration around Mr. Thornburgh's neck like an albatross. The voters sent Mr. Thornburgh and George Bush a message -- they are nervous about the economy in general and the health care mess in particular.

Republicans say the voting Tuesday was a good day for them. It was, but only because more incumbents were Democrats than Republicans. This was a throw-the-rascals-out election. In New Jersey especially but also in Virginia, where state legislative races were held, Democrats suffered serious losses.

In Mississippi a seemingly popular Democratic governor, Ray Mabus, was ousted by Republican businessman Kirk Fordice, whose winning formula included attacks on "welfare" and "quotas" and on "career politicians." The first two may be racist code, but the third is not, and all incumbents need to take notice. The natives are restless. Mayoral races are usually not competitive (as we saw locally), but in several cities, including Houston, Savannah, Ga., Bridgeport, Conn., and Flint, Mich., mayors of both parties lost; in San Francisco, the incumbent who won with 70 percent of the vote four years ago was forced into a run-off.

Senator Wofford's victory was not only the most watched, it was the most meaningful. It was a U-turn in a high visibility race. Pennsylvania is Republican territory for Senate candidates. Only one other Democrat ever won election to this seat, and that was 51 years ago. Only two Democrats ever were elected to the state's other seat, the last in 1962. Most Pennsylvania voters can't even remember a Democratic senator before now.

Many young voters also can't remember a serious, scary and enduring recession before now. Senator Wofford did well with them. He also did well in the suburbs. These are core constituencies of the Republican Party -- its heart and soul. So Tuesday in Pennsylvania was ominous for Republican incumbents running in 1992. That includes especially George Bush.

The president is lucky. He has a full year to do something about the economy, health care and other domestic issues. If he doesn't, he risks being the third incumbent president of the last four to be voted out of office. It will take more than canceling trips overseas and saying he is interested in domestic affairs, as he has just done, to save himself. Americans clearly want action and results.

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