Election '88: the Mountain West

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ARIZONA Apparently eager to avoid repeating the scenario that gave them the ill-fated former Gov. Evan Mecham, Arizonans have placed on their ballot a constitutional amendment that would require all statewide executive officers to be elected by a majority vote.

With ``no hot races to speak of,'' according to Phoenix political consultant Alfredo Gutierrez, Arizonans are turning their attention to ballot issues.

One would provide for runoffs in cases where none of three or more candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The measure is a legacy of Mr. Mecham, who won the governorship with 40 percent of the vote in a three-way contest in 1986. The embattled Republican was removed from office last April by the Senate of this Republican state after being impeached by the House for personal use of public funds and for thwarting an investigation of a death threat by one of his appointees.

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Voters will also decide whether to make English the ``official'' language of the state. With neighboring California having overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in 1986, supporters and opponents alike had thought the measure would sail to easy victory - until recently.

Earlier this month U.S. English, a national organization supporting ballot measures like Arizona's, was engulfed in controversy over a two-year-old memorandum by the group's founder. The memo warns of an America where an educated, English-speaking, Anglo minority would be overcome by poor, fast-breeding, non-English-speaking non-whites.

Opponents of such measures - also on the November ballot in Colorado and Florida - say the memo reveals a racist underpinning to the ``official English'' movement. Veteran newsman Walter Cronkite resigned from the advisory board of U.S. English, as did the group's president, former White House aide Linda Chavez.

Two-term Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) is expected to have very little trouble retaining his seat over Republican challenger Keith DeGreen, an inspirational speaker with no political background. Senator DeConcini, one political observer says, ``has done an extraordinary job of transcending party lines.'' He is one of a sizable number of Democratic senators from GOP states who, as often as not, are comfortable voting in line with the conservative outlook of their constituents.

COLORADO

With neither a gubernatorial nor a United States Senate race this year, Colorado is another state where ballot measures are receiving extra voter attention.

Like Arizona, this Rocky Mountain state will vote on an ``official English'' measure, with most observers expecting it to pass despite heated opposition from Hispanics. The measure had been stricken from the ballot by a federal district judge because it did not appear in both English and Spanish, but it was recently reinstated by a court of appeals.

Perhaps the most controversial measure would resume state funding of abortions for indigent women, a practice that was stopped after a 1984 ballot question passed by less than 1 percent of the votes cast. ``This measure could get more votes for and against than all the candidates for president,'' says Dan Sloan, a political scientist at the University of Colorado. He adds that the measure has a good chance of passing, because the taxpayer groups that were the catalyst for the 1984 measure have not focused on this year's question.

Coloradans will also decide tax limitation measures similar to those rejected in 1986. This year the ``Taxpayers' Bill of Rights'' amendment would require taxpayers to decide almost all tax increases, cut the state income tax by about 10 percent, and limit residential property taxes to 1 percent of market value.

The state is expected to maintain an even split between Democrats and Republicans in its six-member US House delegation. Democrats, however, hold out some hope of wresting the Sixth Congressional District from Republican incumbent Dan Schaefer. Their candidate, former Republican Martha M. Ezzard, is widely known and got a recent campaign assist from actor Robert Redford.

IDAHO

This is another state without a gubernatorial or US Senate election. And with Idaho's two incumbent US representatives - one Democrat, the other Republican - considered safe bets for reelection, a constitutional amendment to allow a state lottery is about the only ballot measure causing any excitement here.

Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus opposes the lottery, asserting that the pool of participants is too small. About 40 percent of the state's 1 million residents are too young to buy lottery tickets, and in a state with a sizable Mormon population, perhaps another 25 percent of the populace would refuse to play. Nonetheless, Steve Boswell, city editor of the Idaho Statesman, says the measure is a ``pretty good bet to pass.''

MONTANA

Stacked up against many of its neighboring states, Montana has a comparative wealth of top-of-the-ballot elections: for governor, for the US Senate, and one close US House race.

With an economy based on agriculture and natural resources, Montana has not shared in the nation's economic recovery. This makes the economy the No. 1 issue, with pitfalls for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Former two-term Democratic Gov. Thomas Judge is trying to recapture that office. He faces Republican Stan Stephens, a longtime leader in the state Senate. Neither man has the political drawing power of outgoing Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden, who outpolled Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mr. Judge is advocating a government-business ``partnership,'' `a la Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, to get his state's economic engine running again. Mr. Stephens advocates a more traditional Republican approach, whereby the state would work to improve the business climate but leave the private sector to take the lead. The race is close, but as of late October political observers sniffed a Judge victory.

The US Senate race here is one the national Republican Party has targeted as part of a strategy to reclaim the Senate majority, but most observers now expect incumbent Democrat John Melcher to hold on to his seat against Republican challenger Conrad Burns. A major stumbling block facing Mr. Burns, a county commissioner and radio show host, is that Senator Melcher enjoys strong support among the very people - ranchers and miners - Burns should appeal to best.

In the state's Second Congressional District, a rematch of a very close 1986 race is being run between incumbent Republican Ron Marlenee and Democrat Richard (Buck) O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien was a virtual unknown two years ago, when he captured 47 percent of the vote. He is said to be running a better campaign this time around, but observers say the somewhat softened attitude of east Montana ranchers, loggers, and miners should work in Mr. Marlenee's favor. ``Things haven't gotten much better,'' says Chuck Johnson, a political reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, ``but I'm not sure the anger is what it used to be.''

Montanans will also be considering a bottle-deposit bill similar to one rejected in 1980. That year the public had expressed overwhelming support for the measure in the spring, but by November heavy advertising by beverage distributors had turned the public around. Public sentiment appeared to favor the deposit law again earlier this year, but most observers expect the anti-deposit forces to win once again.

NEVADA

Nevadans appear to be on the verge of trading in Republican US Sen. Jacob (Chic) Hecht for his Democratic challenger, Gov. Richard Bryan. The extremely popular governor is expected to have little trouble knocking off first-term Senator Hecht, although a 30-point summer lead has been narrowing. In what political scientist Andrew Tuttle of the University of Nevada calls a ``curiously issueless race,'' both sides have been jabbing at the proposed siting in Nevada of the federal permanent nuclear-waste dump. Mr. Bryan is running on his record as governor, while Mr. Hecht has made headway by painting Bryan as a liberal.

If Bryan wins, he will be replaced in the governor's chair by Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Miller.

Democrats believe they have a shot at picking up the state's Second Congressional District, where they are running Mayor James Spoo of Sparks. But GOP incumbent Barbara Vucanovich appears to be in little danger of losing her seat.

NEW MEXICO

Incumbent US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, is holding off state Sen. Bill Valentine, another candidate national Republicans had hoped would help them regain a Senate majority. Senator Bingaman has won points by positioning himself as a moderate and by expressing support for the state's two federal research laboratories, in Los Alamos and Sandia.

With the Senate race offering little suspense, many of the state's political junkies are turning for excitement to the open race in Albuquerque's First Congressional District. The seat has been vacated by the retirement of Republican Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr., after 10 terms. Bernalillo County district attorney Steven H. Schiff, a Republican, is knocking heads with Democrat Tom Udall, nephew of veteran Arizona Democratic Rep. Morris Udall.

Both candidates come to the race dragging baggage from hard-fought primaries - Mr. Schiff defeated Mr. Lujan's brother, while Mr. Udall beat a popular Hispanic city council member.

Schiff's jurisdiction as district attorney takes in 90 percent of the population of the congressional district he seeks to represent. But he has garnered his share of negative publicity for several court cases that critics say he did not handle well. Udall has assembled a coalition of ethnic organizers and environmentalists, but Schiff appears to have a razor-thin edge.

OKLAHOMA

Looking over the Sooner State's six congressional districts, Gary Copeland, a University of Oklahoma political scientist, says, ``I don't think any of our incumbents are losing any sleep at night - and probably not all day, for that matter.'' The delegation's 4-to-2 Democrat-Republican split is not expected to change.

There is neither a gubernatorial nor US Senate race this year.

Voters will consider a measure to expand the list of crimes for which bail may be denied, but the ballot question is drawing little interest.

TEXAS

Whether or not Lloyd Bentsen makes it to the White House as Michael Dukakis's vice-president, there is little doubt that the three-term US senator, who first entered the upper chamber by defeating then-congressman George Bush in 1970, will retain his Senate seat.

Nipping at Mr. Bentsen's heels is challenger Beau Boulter, a Republican congressman from Amarillo. Mr. Boulter gave up his seat to run against Bentsen, and he has tried to make hay of Bentsen's double run, which is allowed by virtue of a special Texas law passed for Lyndon Johnson so that he could run for both the Senate and vice-presidency in 1960.

Boulter's harvest has been meager, however, and most observers expect Bentsen to best him by at least 20 points. Even many Republicans do not want to see the immensely popular Bentsen lose his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.

Still, Texas GOP chairman Fred Meyer maintains that Bentsen could be in for a shock: ``The longer Bentsen identifies himself with Dukakis, the longer Texans have to think about the kind of values they want representing them in Washington,'' says Mr. Meyer, pointing to Dukakis's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. ``I can tell you we're going to keep hammering on that one.''

Democrats believe they have a good chance of increasing their ranks (currently 17) in the 27-member Texas congressional delegation by two seats. One is the Panhandle district relinquished by Boulter. There, Democratic state Sen. Bill Sarpalius appears to be ahead of Republican Larry S. Milner, who is taking his first stab at political office.

The other congressional district, the rambling and largely rural 14th in the southeastern part of the state, involves a rematch of 1986 opponents: incumbent Republican Mac Sweeney and Democrat Greg H. Laughlin. Mr. Laughlin has made points by highlighting the continuing downturn in the rural economy. Yet while Mr. Sweeney has been hurt by charges of aloofness from his constituents, he will no doubt be boosted by a number of federal benefits for the district that have recently fallen into place, including a waterway dredging project and the declaration of a free-trade zone.

Republicans, on the other hand, say that not only do they expect to hold on to those two seats, but they believe a ``surprise'' or two for the Democrats could be brewing in two other districts.

In the Fifth, encompassing many of Dallas's humbler neighborhoods, Republican Lon Williams is challenging incumbent Democrat John Bryant. And in the east Texas First, Republican Horace McQueen is attempting to unseat Democrat Jim Chapman. But Mr. Chapman, who was elected in a special 1985 election that was trumpeted by Republicans as a test of Texas' party realignment, appears to have solidified his support.

Perhaps the most important set of elections in Texas, even if they are so far causing surprisingly little stir, is for the state's embattled Supreme Court, where an unprecedented six of nine seats are up for election. Texans could in one day bring sweeping change to the court, which has come under sharp criticism in recent years for the large campaign contributions some justices have accepted from lawyers practicing before the court. The Texaco-Pennzoil case last year put a national spotlight on the court; CBS News's ``60 Minutes'' news program last month replayed a hard-eyed look at the court that it first aired last year.

Republicans in the highly partisan races criticize the recent court, which in January got its first GOP chief justice since Reconstruction, for favoring plaintiffs suing corporations, doctors, and insurance companies. Democrats counter that the court has only shifted away from a decided leaning in favor of big business and other moneyed interests.

UTAH

Taxes are all the talk in Utah this election season. First-term Republican Gov. Norman Bangerter is facing heated attacks in his reelection bid, because of major tax increases he ushered through last year. At the same time, voters will have a chance to rescind the 1987 tax increases - and then some. A three-pronged antitax initiative would roll back tax hikes on income, sales, gasoline, and cigarettes; limit property taxes; and give tax credits for private education.

Governor Bangerter opposes the initiatives, as does his Democratic challenger, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson. Strangely, Salt Lake political consultant Dan Jones says he senses that the governor is in trouble, even though he also expects the tax initiatives to lose.

One reason Bangerter may lose, Mr. Jones says, is that a conservative third candidate, independent Merrill Cook, is siphoning away some of the votes the governor needs to hold off Mr. Wilson. Voters may also accept the higher taxes as a fait accompli but vote against Bangerter ``to show they're still mad at him,'' Jones says.

Otherwise, staunchly Republican Utah holds little suspense. The only question about Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch's reelection bid concerns the margin by which he'll win. Some Democrats hold out hope for a victory by their challenger, Gunn McKay, in the First Congressional District, but incumbent Republican James Hansen appears to be better organized than two years ago, when he bested Mr. McKay with 52 percent of the vote.

WYOMING

Wyoming, with one US senator up for reelection and only one House seat to its name, is another ``no contest'' state. Republican Sen. Malcolm Wallop is expected to have no trouble outdistancing Democratic challenger John P. Vinich. And the state's one congressman, Republican Dick Cheney - widely respected and mentioned as a possible speaker in any eventual GOP-controlled House - also has nothing to worry about come Nov. 8.

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