A Party Relieved, Reinvigorated
By David S. Broder
Rather than cashing in on the White House scandal and scoring the usual opposition-party gains in the sixth year of a president's term, Republicans saw the building blocks of the Ronald Reagan era – California and the Deep South – captured by their rivals. In taking over the governorships of California, Alabama and South Carolina, holding the Georgia governor's office and capturing a Senate seat in North Carolina, the Democrats signaled that they have not lost their capacity to build cross-racial coalitions and to challenge the GOP on its home ground.
In Senate and House races, Democrats fought the Republicans to a virtual standstill. The result was an election far more comforting to the president and his party than seemed possible a few months ago when Clinton was forced to admit that he had concealed his White House affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Two conservative senators laid the blame on their party leadership. "We didn't have any message," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "The Monica Lewinsky thing didn't affect people's lives enough to make our people want to vote."
Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), calling the election "a substantial missed opportunity," said, "It was the absence of an agenda that has caused an absence of enthusiasm on the Republican side."
In national exit polls yesterday, 65 percent of the voters said Clinton should not be impeached and almost as many said Congress should drop the matter rather than hold hearings, as the House is scheduled to do starting next week.
"The country is in such a good mood, people are so optimistic, they didn't want to rock the boat," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), whose speech criticizing Clinton's conduct had dismayed the White House last summer. "And the president is associated with the good times, so it will be hard to take him out, unless they can make a very strong case."
Good economic times benefited incumbents of both parties, but no one profited more than the Republican governors of major states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas. Texas Gov. George W. Bush not only rolled up more than two-thirds of the vote but also carried in his candidate for lieutenant governor, Rick Perry (R), which will give Bush the freedom to seek the presidential nomination in 2000, as many expect him to do.
His younger brother, Jeb Bush, won the Florida governorship on his second try for the office, making it a banner evening for former president George Bush.
Few other Republicans had much to smile about, however. As returns rolled in and it became evident that black and union voters had turned out in large numbers, the sigh of relief from Democrats was louder than the muted cheers Republicans mustered for scattered House and Senate pickups.
"Six weeks ago," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), "we closed the doors to the Democratic caucus and assigned seats in the lifeboats. Now, most of our people are back and it looks like the Republicans have been tossed a hot stove on impeachment."
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee and an ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said Republicans will not drop impeachment but will speed it up. "The process will begin in the Judiciary Committee next Monday, but we understand people want us to move as expeditiously as possible. The message has come through loud and clear. No Republicans are going to want to drag this out."
Exit polls made it clear that Clinton's fate was not the overriding factor in the voting. Six out of 10 voters said they were sending no message on impeachment; 20 percent said they wanted to signal opposition to the president; 19 percent, to express their support.
But by using some of the final campaign ads to publicize their intention to pursue the case against Clinton, Republicans appear to have inadvertently bolstered Democratic efforts to turn out African American and Hispanic voters, by all odds the president's most loyal constituencies. Together, they cast 16 percent of the votes yesterday, up from 12 percent in 1994.
Targeted efforts by labor unions to contact their members paid off even more dramatically. Union households supplied 22 percent of the votes, compared with 14 percent in 1994. Republicans saw their share of the union vote decline from 40 percent to 33 percent.
The defeats of Sens. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who held televised hearings on Whitewater, and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), a personal friend and political ally of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, were particularly sweet revenge for the White House.
But for the longer term – and especially for Vice President Gore's hopes of succeeding Clinton in 2000 – nothing was more important than Lt. Gov. Gray Davis's easy victory over state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) for the California governorship. Outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson (R) may try a second time for the GOP presidential nomination, but for now the state party that has regularly paced the national GOP in leadership seems out of gas.
Four of the last five Republican presidential victories were furnished by Californians Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the fifth came from Reagan's vice president, George Bush.
Conservatives had tabbed Lungren, an ally of Gingrich in his years in Congress, as a future national standard-bearer. But last night, questions were being raised whether the tough-on-crime, antiabortion positions Lungren espoused in his campaign were fatal to his chances.
Ken Khachigian, who ran the California campaign for 1996 Republican nominee Robert J. Dole, said: "Some will say – and rightfully so – that there has to be some reasonableness in our rhetoric and some acknowledgment of the symbolic value of certain things. It doesn't mean we have to become mushy moderates . . . but we have work to do with Republican women, young people and Hispanics."
While Gingrich told his constituents that Republicans had made history by apparently holding their House majority for three successive Congresses for the first time in three-quarters of a century, the California results raised questions about the capacity of the GOP to prevail in the next century, when more states will begin to acquire California's ethnic and racial diversity.
But Gingrich has more pressing problems. The continuing narrow margin of control leaves the speaker struggling to keep intact a majority that includes a vocal conservative faction that wants to see more of the "revolution" its members promised the country in 1994 and an opposing bloc of moderates who want their party to return to the middle of the road.
Before the returns came in, a House Republican leadership aide said, "Gaining 15 or 20 seats would make our life incredibly easier. It would allow us to push our agenda forward, while some of our moderate members voted their own districts the other way."
Without that kind of pickup, a White House legislative strategist said, Republicans will likely continue to face the sort of internal splits that made it possible for Clinton to outmaneuver them in the end-of-the-session budget negotiations. "It's a House problem, but it carries over to the Senate," he said, "because the compromises Senate Republicans are willing to make are rejected by conservatives in the House. And in the end, we have to give them less than they could get from us if they were united."
Despite the fact that the House will vote first on any impeachment move, White House concerns focused mainly on the Senate elections. If Republicans had gained five seats for a filibuster-proof 60 senators, the president's main line of defense against GOP legislation would have been breached.
Retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said early in the evening, "Getting to 60 would make a huge psychological difference. We could present the Republican agenda in a much more aggressive fashion. We wouldn't get everything we wanted, but it would put us on more than an equal footing with the president in terms of setting the agenda and set the stage for 2000."
Instead, said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), "If we lose no more than one seat net this year, we're in good shape to make [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle the majority leader in 2000." In that year, Republicans must defend 19 Senate seats, the Democrats 14.
Despite the good news for the Democrats in yesterday's voting, there were reminders that they may be on the unpopular side of some issues. In Washington state, an initiative ending racial or gender preferences in hiring, contracting and college admissions won by a wide margin, despite opposition from all the leading Democratic officials in the state and some major business leaders. That issue will almost certainly be placed on the ballot in other states in 2000 and it may surface as part of the Republican congressional agenda.
And Minnesota, normally a Democratic bastion, sent a sharp message that a libertarian form of antiestablishment populism has appeal. Former pro wrestler and talk radio host Jesse "the Body" Ventura not only won the governorship as the Reform Party candidate but also drove state Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III (D), the early favorite, into third place.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post