In Key State of California, Democrats Bask in Victories
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 4, 1998; Page A29
LOS ANGELES, Nov.3 Democrat Gray Davis, who campaigned as the candidate who best represents the mainstream in the nation's largest and most diverse state, won big tonight over Dan Lungren in the California gubernatorial race.
The victory for Davis, along with the reelection of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) over Republican challenger Matt Fong, means that for the first time in two decades Democrats would be dominant in a state that will be critical in the 2000 presidential and congressional elections.
With a strong showing in exit polls and 20 percent of California precincts reporting, Davis declared victory at about 10:30 p.m. PST.
Davis, a 55-year-old career politician and California's lieutenant governor, worked hard to make the election a choice between his centrist Democratic agenda and that of a Republican he painted as too conservative for the state.
Davis's victory will end 16 years of GOP rule in Sacramento, making him the fourth Democrat elected governor here this century.
A stiff but intense campaigner, Davis nevertheless appeared on the verge of defeating a candidate who cast himself as the political heir of Ronald Reagan. Lungren, the state's attorney general, struggled to win support from an electorate that is largely content with the way the state and country are being run but who told pollsters they were ready to see a change of parties in Sacramento.
Davis's vow to end divisive politics was a clear dig at Gov. Pete Wilson (R) – ineligible to run for another term – who championed voter propositions to end affirmative action, social services for illegal aliens and bilingual education.
With his apparent election, Davis gains control over the richest, most populous and ethnically diverse state in the country and also has final say over how the legislature redraws congressional districts after the 2000 Census. This realignment of California's 52 congressional seats could tip the balance of power in Congress for years.
Just as important, the state holds a gold mine of delegates for the 2000 presidential contest, and in recent months Vice President Gore has been a frequent flier to the Golden State campaigning for Davis.
Boxer was on the brink of victory tonight after a hard-fought race against challenger Fong, the state treasurer, who was leading her in opinion polls just two weeks ago. Boxer had been seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, but she came back strong – and negative – in the final days, attacking Fong as an extremist.
Results from polls of voters exiting ballot booths showed Davis and Boxer garnering strong support among women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the young. Davis was taking the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters, while also eating into Lungren's Republican ranks.
In his campaign, Davis emphasized the need to improve California's public schools, which voters have cited as their top concern in this election. On a wide range of other issues, he held tight to the political center – where recent California elections have been won.
Davis focused his attack on Lungren's reluctance, as the state's top law enforcement official, to enforce restrictions on assault weapons and his decision not to join a huge class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry until late in the game.
Together, Lungren and Davis spent about $50 million, much of it directed at California's television audiences. Lungren sought to convey a Reaganesque exuberance, speaking in commercials of California's bright future. Davis looked the camera in the eye and calmly but forcefully told voters that Lungren is opposed to a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest or where the woman's health is imperiled.
The campaign pitted two politicians who in many ways were more alike than different. Both are middle-aged, white male, Roman Catholic lawyers in their fifties. But Lungren, who was a congressmen from California from 1978 to 1988, charged Davis with being a closet liberal tax-and-spender who tried to be all things to all constituents but "couldn't make the tough choices."
In debates and campaign appearances, Lungren also insisted that Davis was a yes-man who was soft on crime when he served as chief of staff to then-Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown (D). But Brown left the governor's office in 1981, and Lungren's attempt to characterize Davis as a flaky acolyte to "Governor Moonbeam" never seemed to resonate with voters.
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