Outsider's win in Texas makes politicians edgy

ON POLITICS

April 15, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Edgy incumbents reading the entrails of every election result can draw little reassurance from the triumph of Richard W. Fisher in the Democratic runoff in Texas for the nomination to oppose Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Fisher, an investor and one-time adviser to Ross Perot, is just the kind of certified outsider that makes the politicians most uneasy these days. And his comfortable victory -- 54 percent to 46 percent -- over former state Attorney General Jim Mattox was at least a mild surprise in the kind of low-turnout runoff that party regulars usually dominate.

Fisher's success was not simply a reflection of his amateur standing and claim to be a "new Democrat" who supports spending restraints and political reform. For one thing, the Dallas businessman spent at least twice as much as Mattox on television advertising during the campaign. For another, Mattox was carrying the heavy baggage of a reputation as both a devout liberal and a take-no-prisoners campaigner, one who suggested in a gubernatorial runoff four years ago that Ann Richards had been a cocaine user.

Fisher also enjoyed the special connection with Mexican-American voters that comes with his fluency in Spanish.

Nonetheless, Fisher is a political neophyte and easy target for political abuse, including being tarred as a closet Republican, as he was by Mattox, because he contributed money to the George Bush re-election campaign. The runoff results seemed to suggest that the voters weren't concerned with party labels or experience in office.

Nor is Fisher the only primary candidate making the party establishment uneasy. In the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. Mark Singel finds himself running, according to fresh opinion polls, only a step ahead of the same political neophyte woman, Lynn Yeakel, who denied him a Senate nomination two years ago.

The strength of female candidates all across the country is one of the things making the incumbents, most of them men, so nervous. Their strategists are telling them that voters see women both as less part of the establishment and less prone to corruption than their male counterparts. This is even true in cases in which the women are officeholders -- such as in Ohio, where a Cuya hoga County commissioner, Mary Boyle, is running a strong challenge to Joel Hyatt, the son-in-law of the retiring Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and the anointed choice of much of the party power structure.

Nor is the power of women peculiar to the Democrats. On the Republican side of that campaign for Metzenbaum's seat, Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes for Health, is at least a realistic possibility to overtake Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine for the nomination.

The best reflection of the regulars' ambivalent attitude toward "outsiders" is the way Texas Democrats are welcoming the success of Fisher although few of them have ever met him. What they see is a candidate who will attract voters, particularly in the Dallas and Houston suburbs, who would never support a political hack and thus help the Democrats stave off an across-the-board political disaster in November.

Republican Hutchison remains the strong favorite for re-election. She won the seat vacated by Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen by almost 2-to-1 in a special election last June. And her position probably has been strengthened by her acquittal on charges she misused the state treasurer's office for political purposes -- charges widely viewed as a Democratic witch hunt after her capture of the Senate seat.

But Fisher does not offer such a sharp contrast to Hutchison as Mattox might have done. He cannot be accused of representing the old politics or establishment. He has some obvious appeal to independents and moderate Republicans in Dallas and Houston.

Fisher will not be the favorite, by any means. But Democrats have been worrying about a potential Republican landslide that might even sweep away Gov. Ann Richards and put George W. Bush into her chair. Fisher may be just "different" enough to prevent that.

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