Democrats Score Significant Upsets
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 1998; Page A1
In a surprising show of strength, Democrats fought Republicans to a virtual draw in a fiercely contested midterm election yesterday, defying history by gaining seats in the House and holding their expected Senate losses to a minimum.
Republicans maintained their majority in the House, but with only a few House seats still undecided, Democrats appeared likely to pick up several seats. In the Senate, Republicans struggled throughout the night to maintain their 10-seat margin against a Democratic Party that outperformed virtually all pre-election forecasts.
The standoff in the congressional elections appeared likely to affect the course of the impeachment inquiry against President Clinton. Democrats appeared jubilant over the trends from last night's results, while Republicans squabbled publicly over whether they had adopted the right strategy in the fall campaigns.
Democrats also captured the single biggest prize of the midterm elections by winning the governorship of California for the first time since 1982. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis easily defeated Republican state Attorney General Dan Lungren in a race that became a model for the party. Davis ran a centrist campaign that pushed his opponent to the right and coasted to victory in the nation's biggest state.
Democrats knocked off incumbent GOP senators in New York and North Carolina, won an open Senate seat in Indiana and scored a breakthrough in the South by capturing governorships in Alabama and South Carolina. Democrats also won the governorship in Iowa, the first time in 32 years they have done so there. In two other notable victories, Democrats maintained threatened Senate seats held by California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray.
Republican bright spots came in Florida, where Jeb Bush, son of former president George Bush, took the governorship after eight years of Democratic control. His brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, won a landslide victory in the Lone Star state that many expect will form the launching pad for a presidential campaign in 2000.
Republicans defeated Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and picked up open Senate seats in Ohio and Kentucky. In other governor's races, Republicans took Democratic seats in Nebraska and Nevada. But the GOP suffered a disappointment in Georgia by failing to pick up a seat long held by the Democrats. Gubernatorial contests in Colorado and Hawaii, two seats in Democratic hands, were too close to call.
With the Nevada Senate race still undecided, the best Republicans could do was a net gain of one seat, which would give them a 56 to 44 majority – far short of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 they talked of a month ago. The Republicans started the day with 32 governorships and expected to gain several. But with Colorado and Hawaii yet to be decided, they held 30 governorships.
In House races, Republican Reps. Jon Fox of Pennsylvania, Bill Redmond of New Mexico, Michael Pappas of New Jersey and Vince Snowbarger of Kansas were defeated, while Democratic freshman Rep. Jay Johnson of Wisconsin lost his bid for reelection.
The biggest surprise of the night came in the Minnesota governor's race. Reform Party candidate Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler, defeated his Republican and Democratic opponents in a huge upset. The governor's office there has been in Republican hands. "The American Dream lives on in Minnesota," an exuberant Ventura told his supporters at a victory rally. "We shocked the world."
Preliminary results by the Voter News Service indicated a 38 percent voter turnout this year, falling just slightly below the 38.8 percent turnout of the last midterm election in 1994. Since 1970, the voter turnout in midterm elections has fluctuated between about 37 percent and 40 percent.
The midterm elections, carried out in an environment friendly to incumbents, were marked by close races across the country and by a Democratic resurgence in the South, where moderate Democratic candidates were able to score breakthroughs in a region that had been moving steadily into the GOP column in recent years.
Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic Party, called the results "a very significant victory" for his party. "This was not an election on impeachment," he added. "It was an election on issues."
Romer said the results would strengthen Clinton in the months ahead. "The Republicans are going to have to decide, are we going to get something done the next two years or are we we going to stonewall. The message of the people is: get to work on what counts for us."
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the results should prompt the House to bring the impeachment inquiry to a quick conclusion. "We can get this over with by the end of the year, do it fairly, and do it expeditiously," he said. "I think that's what people want us to do. They want us to get back to their agenda."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tried to focus on the positive, saying it was significant that Republicans would maintain their House majorities for the third straight election, the first time in 70 years that has happened. On the issue of impeachment, he said Republicans and Democrats in Congress should "do their constitutional duty" and "not be moved by polls or by talk shows."
But former vice president Dan Quayle, in a preview of the battle that is likely to break out within the GOP, called the midterm elections "a missed opportunity" for Republicans. "We've got to get our agenda before the American people," he said. "The Democrats demagogued and we failed to get our agenda out there."
Other Republicans said their candidates had failed to talk enough about tax cuts and other conservative themes and said the party should learn a lesson from the results.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) dismissed the pessimistic talk of some of his GOP colleagues. "There really wasn't a national theme," Lott said. "I don't think they've turned the impeachment issue around. The impeachment issue . . . was not an issue in a lot of campaigns across the country, I don't believe. And if it was, then we should be winning a lot more races than we are right now."
Education and moral or ethical issues topped the list of voter concerns, according to exit polls by Voter News Service, while the relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky was last in a list of seven issues.
Six in 10 voters said their vote had nothing to do with the president; the rest of the electorate split evenly between those who said they were supporting Clinton and those who said they were opposing him.
A strong majority (62 percent) opposed impeaching the president and nearly as many (57 percent) said Congress should simply drop the issue without holding any hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.
The exit polls underscored the contentment – an environment that has favored incumbents. More than four in five said the economy is either good or excellent and 60 percent said they believe the country is going in the right direction.
Elsewhere, Democrats picked up a Senate seat in Indiana when former governor Evan Bayh captured the seat of retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R). But Republicans countered by claiming a Senate seat in Ohio, where Gov. George V. Voinovich scored an easy victory to take the seat held by Sen. John Glenn (D), who was orbiting the Earth as results were reported.
Republicans held Senate seats in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Utah. Democrats maintained seats in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Vermont.
The biggest Democratic victories came in New York, where Rep. Charles E. Schumer toppled Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato in one of the nastiest contests in the country. In North Carolina, Democratic lawyer John Edwards, who ran as a moderate, defeated Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, one of the Senate's most conservative Republicans. And in South Carolina, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D), aided by the Democratic tide, held off Rep. Bob Inglis (R).
In Illinois, Moseley-Braun, considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the country, lost to state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. In Kentucky, Rep. Jim Bunning (R) defeated Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) for the seat held by retiring Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D).
Nevada Sen. Harry M. Reid (D) had a tiny lead over Rep. John Ensign (R) with about 15 percent of the precincts still out. But in Wisconsin, embattled Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D) scored a victory over Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R) in one of the most contested campaigns in the country. Feingold, an advocate of campaign finance reform, ran under a self-imposed spending limit and refused to allow the Democratic Party to air ads paid for with so-called soft money.
Democrats had unexpected success in governor's races, particularly in the South, where they picked off the governorships of Alabama and South Carolina. In Alabama, Lt. Gov. Donald Siegelman (D) defeated Gov. Fob James (R), who had struggled to win his party's primary.
In South Carolina, one of the most Republican states in the South, first-term Gov. David M. Beasley (R) lost to state Rep. Jim Hodges (D). Beasley had inflamed GOP conservatives by attempting to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol, then drew the ire of the gambling industry by attempting to rid the state of video poker. The combination proved too heavy a burden to overcome.
Republicans also suffered another southern disappointment when they failed in their bid to wrest control of the governor's office in Georgia. Democratic state Rep. Roy Barnes, patterning himself after longtime incumbent Gov. Zell Miller (D), defeated Republican businessman Guy Millner, who had lost two earlier statewide races.
The California races demonstrated the Democrats' ability to take over the center of the political spectrum. Davis and Boxer both pushed their opponents to the right by running ads on abortion, the environment and gun control. Lungren, once the GOP's bright hope, failed to mount a serious challenge to Davis. Boxer was one incumbent Democrat hurt by the Clinton scandal, but turned the race around with negative ads and was aided by Davis.
The Davis victory in California puts Democrats in control at a crucial time because of the coming redistricting battle after the 2000 census. The Davis victory could affect control of the California congressional delegation well into the next decade.
Democrats more than beat the odds yesterday. Since World War II, the party in power has lost an average of 28 House seats in midterm elections.
The biggest postwar defeat for a president's party came just four years ago, when Republicans captured 52 seats and took control of the House for the first time since 1952. They also took control of the Senate by winning eight seats. The last time the president's party won House seats in a midterm was in 1934.
The 1994 earthquake came after two previous midterm elections – 1986 and 1990 – that produced relatively little change in the House. In 1990, Republicans lost eight House seats, and in 1986 they lost just five. But in that election, Republicans lost eight seats in the Senate and ceded control back to the Democrats after six years in power.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post