Prosperity, Satisfaction Buoy the GOP

Voter affirmation of status quo portends good news for incumbents in 1998.

The elections of 1997 prove an old political maxim: When times are good, incumbents win.

And as the Republican Party savors its sweep of Tuesday's four biggest races - all for seats already held by Republicans - it heads into the 1998 elections from a position of considerable strength, as long as the economy stays strong.

The '97 elections also intensify the spotlight on the Democrats' financial woes. This year the national GOP outspent the Democrats $5 million to $1 million. The money may have helped pull New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman over the finish line in a tight race and contributed to the Republican sweep in Virginia's top three elected offices for the first time this century.

But if money helped, the national mood of contentment was the driving force in Tuesday's elections. Even on ballot initiatives, the status quo reigned. In Houston, voters decided to keep affirmative action. In Washington State, initiatives for gun control and the medical use of marijuana were defeated. Oregon kept the nation's only law allowing physician-assisted suicide.

"People are reasonably happy out there," says Charles Cook, a Washington-based political analyst. Looking at the '98 races for the US House of Representatives, he adds: "Unless some external event changes things, I would expect to see the incumbent reelection rate next year hit 97, 98, maybe 99 percent."

That's bad news for the Democrats, who feel so close to retaking the House they can almost taste it. The Republican victory Tuesday in the open New York seat set back one Democratic dream of narrowing the GOP's 11-seat margin in the 435-member House. The Democrats also face a daunting historical precedent: In every midterm election since 1934, the party that controls the White House has always lost House seats.

Still, the Democrats took some lessons from this week's votes.

"People want you to pay attention to their problems," House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri told a Monitor breakfast yesterday. "Voters are worried about taxes."

Congressman Gephardt implicitly criticized Don Beyer, the Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, who rejected advice early in the race to propose eliminating the state's unpopular car tax. Republican candidate Jim Gilmore did propose phasing out the tax - a pledge that became his mantra - and coasted to victory.

Speaking in New Jersey on election night, National Republican Committee co-chair Pat Harrison said the turning point for Governor Whitman came when she ran an ad saying, in effect, "I hear you, and I realize property taxes and auto-insurance rates are too high."

"That ad will be analyzed for a long time," says Ms. Harrison, adding that during peacetime, a politician has to focus on pocketbook issues.

Issues close to home

Indeed, New Jersey voters interviewed on election day were most concerned about issues close to home. Betsey Morse, a senior citizen from Shrewsbury, complains that her property taxes have risen more than $100 per year. And Robert Weir, a lawyer in Lincroft, grumbles about auto insurance and education. His oldest child gets only 2-1/2 hours of kindergarten a day, he says, because of a shortage of classrooms.

Although New Jerseyans returned Whitman to office, her political future beyond 2001 is cloudy.

"She's not going to have any big bounce" from Tuesday's vote, says Lee Miringoff, executive director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, who won reelection in a landslide, may have a brighter future - at least in statewide politics. Some analysts see him as a potentially strong candidate for the US Senate in 2000, when Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be up for reelection if he chooses to run.

But at a national level, Mr. Giuliani would face the same problems Whitman does: They are both liberal on social issues, favoring abortion and gay rights. These positions fit with the moderate Republicanism of the Northeast, but they are unpalatable to conservative activists in the GOP. Conservative, anti-abortion opposition to Whitman almost cost her reelection this week.

In Virginia, Mr. Beyer's weak campaign may have cost the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, L.F. Payne, a victory. Polls showed Mr. Payne ahead in his race until the final week, and when Beyer's numbers began to plummet, so did the rest of the Democratic ticket. The only bright spot for Virginia Democrats was that they kept control, barely, of the state House of Delegates.

But the historical tide of Virginia, as with the rest of the South, is toward Republicanism. "Virginia has been basically Republican for the last four years," says Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

Another ominous note for Virginia Democrats was the low turnout among blacks. Of those who did vote, a relatively high percentage - 19 percent - went for Mr. Gilmore, the Republican.

Assisted-suicide law stands

On the ballot issues, the message was, again, status quo. In Washington State, voters rejected what would have been one of the strictest gun-control laws in the country, and Oregon voters reaffirmed support for an assisted-suicide law.

Oregon's law permitting doctors to help certain patients end their lives, which passed three years ago by a slim margin, was challenged by religious organizations and right-to-life groups.

But by a 20-percent margin, voters rejected the repeal effort. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of states to pass assisted-suicide laws. The high court also rejected a challenge to Oregon's law on narrow grounds, but further challenges are expected.

Despite the Oregon vote, other states are not expected to follow suit anytime soon. Lawmakers in many states in recent years have specifically banned the procedure, and attempts to follow Oregon's lead via the ballot initiative have failed elsewhere.

A proposal in Washington State would have outlawed the sale of handguns without trigger locks, and it also would have required that all gun owners obtain safety licenses. The National Rifle Association spent more than $2 million to defeat the measure.

* Staff writers Ron Scherer in New York and Brad Knickerbocker in Oregon contributed to this report.

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