Incumbents Beware

WHO lost in this week's Illinois congressional primaries was nearly as interesting as who won the presidential contest. The losers may say a lot about the country's political mood, and about the makeup of the next Congress.

Sen. Alan Dixon, a conservative Democrat known for supporting the policies of Reagan and Bush, fell victim to strong anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment. Such sentiment is fairly widespread around the country, but it reached critical mass for Senator Dixon for two reasons: First, his vote to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court became a rallying point for many Democrats long disgruntled with his conservatism, and for many women regardless of party. Second, one of his primary opponents, a ttorney Albert Hofeld, did a thorough job of tarring Dixon with every glob of incumbency he could find.

Dixon may not have bounced checks at the House of Representatives bank, but he did take junkets, fly regularly to his condo in Florida, and, not least for his region, he voted with the administration to fast-track the free-trade agreement with Mexico. Mr. Hofeld made the most of these items and more in TV spots.

The victor, however, was not Hofeld, but Carol Moseley Braun, a Cook County official who had served a number of years in the state legislature and ran her primary campaign on a shoestring. She emphasized the Thomas vote, drew lots of volunteer campaign workers, and managed to outdistance both her millionaire opponents.

Another incumbent, Charles Hayes, was coasting toward victory until stung by the House bank story. He acknowledged 716 overdrawn checks - more than enough to derail his try for a sixth term in the House. The winner was Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther who opted for mainstream politics, serving as a Chicago alderman and vice chairman of the state's Democratic Party.

A third longtime Democratic incumbent knocked out of the running was Gus Savage. His redrawn district now includes lots of suburban voters who registered their distaste for the congressman by margins as wide as 80 percent to 20 percent. Mr. Savage is known for inflammatory rhetoric tinged with antiwhite and anti-Semitic views. Winner Mel Reynolds - like Savage, a black - had tried to unseat the incumbent two times before. He proclaimed "a repudiation of racial politics."

The winners in all three of these contests could represent a new generation of black leaders in Illinois. They may also represent a political wave that could hit more incumbents before 1992 is over.

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