Republicans Take Hit in Elections

Democratic victories in Sunbelt crush GOP plans to capture House in 1992

REPUBLICANS face a difficult decade in the 1990s. Democratic victories in races for governor in big Sunbelt states and gains in Congress jolted the GOP, and undercut Republican plans to capture the House of Representatives by 1992.

President Bush, his popularity skidding, now will be confronted by a Senate and House under tightened Democratic control - a Congress increasingly willing to challenge his grip on Washington.

Several strong signals emerged from coast-to-coast balloting on Tuesday:

Democrats exploited their most powerful theme in years, the charge that Republicans cater to the rich. The issue will dog Mr. Bush into the 1992 campaign.

Despite widespread anger against officeholders, the power of incumbency still rules elections. Only one senator was defeated, and about 97 percent of all House members were reelected.

Voter unrest led to passage of strong initiatives in California and Colorado to impose term limits on state legislators. Colorado also supported limits on congressmen, a provision certain to face court challenge.

While Democrats gained in the Sunbelt, Republicans showed strength in the North, where they grabbed the governorships in Ohio and Massachusetts and at press time were in virtual dead heats in Michigan and Minnesota.

Abortion-rights advocates proved their clout in several races, including the governors' contests in Texas, Florida, and California.

``This is a real setback for George Bush,'' says pollster Mervin Field in California, where Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein were locked in a see-saw race for the governorship.

Tom Cronin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, calls this ``a normal election,'' with the president's party taking a solid hit. But he cautions that with more time, the growing anti-incumbent furor across the country could have a much greater impact - perhaps in 1992.

There are a couple of reasons that voter anger didn't have even greater fallout. As Dr. Cronin explains, it takes 18 months to conduct a congressional race, but voter anger has built quickly only during the past four or five months - not enough time to mount serious challenges against incumbents.

Another reason is money. The Federal Election Commission notes that during the final three weeks of the election, congressional incumbents had $120 million to spend, while challengers had only $6 million. Seventy-four House incumbents had no opponents.

Even so, several congressmen had serious scares, and a number of governors went down to defeat. Notable among the close calls were Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Other congressmen saw their margins shrink. Gov. Bob Martinez (R) of Florida lost 57-43 to former US Sen. Lawton Chiles (D).

Perhaps the Democrats' greatest upset was in the mud-slinging Texas race for governor, where state treasurer Ann Richards lassoed GOP businessman Clayton Williams. But Republicans hung on to the biggest trophy of all, California, where Republican Sen. Pete Williams eked past Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The governorships were crucial to GOP prospects. In the next year, Texas, Florida, and California will gain at least 14 new congressional seats. Districts will be redrawn by the parties in power, and without protection from the governors' offices, Republicans could be big losers.

Although the GOP suffered crushing setbacks, there were Republican triumphs, led by Sen. Jesse Helms' reelection in North Carolina. Mr. Helms, the nation's premier conservative, defeated former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt by 6 points in a contest with extremely heavy voter turnout.

Republicans could also gloat over other surprises: William Weld elected over Democrat John Silber for governor of Massachusetts; George Voinovich elected governor over Democrat Anthony Celebreeze in Ohio; Arne Carlson's two-point lead in Minnesota over Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich.

In all, Democrats gained one US Senate seat, lifting them to a 56-44 margin. In the House, Democrats gained approximately eight seats to bring them to 267, making it harder for Bush to sustain his vetoes. Among the 36 governors' races, the GOP lost a net of 1 seat, as did the Democrats. Two seats went to independents, 28 to Democrats, and 20 to Republicans.

Women candidates didn't shatter the glass ceiling, but they put some cracks in it.

Ms. Richards became the first woman governor in Texas history since 1932. Democrat Joan Finney captured the governor's mansion in Kansas. And Democrat Barbara Roberts staged a surprising victory in the Oregon governor's election.

But there were 31 women in Congress before the election, and 31 afterwards.

And of eight women running for the Senate, only incumbent Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas won.

``We didn't expect to shatter the glass ceiling,'' says Maura Brueger, political director of the Women's Campaign Fund, which supports pro-choice candidates. ``But we're real happy.''

Almost every tax limitation measure - including those in Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska - went down to defeat. But so did most tax increases across the country.

``I don't think the tax revolt is dead,'' says John Keast, who tracks initiatives for the Free Congress Foundation. ``But 1990 isn't `Tax Revolt 2,' either.''

Nor did the environment score big at the ballot box. California's ``Big Green'' initiative was crushed 2-1. Also beaten was the ``Forest Forever'' initiative in California, as well as a strong growth-control initiative in Washington state.

Most of the 28 ballot questions in California went down to defeat, perhaps reflecting voter protest over the number of measures and concern about their financial impact. So did attempts to limit abortions by popular referendum in Oregon.

In the end, election day was a blow to Bush. But some potential Democratic presidential candidates got bad news, too. More than half the voters in their own states said Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Senator Bradley of New Jersey, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas wouldn't make good presidents. More favorable reviews went to Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska from their states' voters.

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