Gingrich Could Face Leadership Challenge
By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
After anticipating big gains at every level of government, Republicans appeared to have lost five House seats and broke even in the Senate on Tuesday. It was the first time since 1934 that the president's party gained seats in the House in a midterm election.
Republicans lost a net of one governorship, and their disappointment was compounded by the blowout in California, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis beat Republican Dan Lungren by 20 percentage points. Republican weakness in the nation's largest state, which has deepened in recent elections, represents a significant obstacle to GOP hopes of recapturing the White House in 2000.
As a result of Tuesday's elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) faced possible challenges to his leadership and he spent much of yesterday reaching out to House members.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), in a phone conversation with Gingrich, suggested the speaker should consider stepping down. Other Republicans began testing the waters for possible leadership races, with some lawmakers openly calling for changes in the GOP leadership team.
Publicly Gingrich acknowledged that the midterms were "not the election we expected" and said the Democrats' unexpected gains should "sober every Republican." Privately, according to participants in a GOP conference call, he told colleagues, "It's going to be, I think, a very challenging two years. It's not at all obvious to me to figure out how to get it to work right."
Gingrich later told reporters that Democrats had found a "pretty effective formula for competing" against Republicans. "I think the drive toward being the majority is a little more in doubt, frankly," he said. "You'd have to say the country is hanging in the balance."
While Republicans were lamenting their losses, the White House and congressional Democrats were counting their winnings and claiming that 2000 will bring even better news for their party.
President Clinton called the results "astonishing" and said the election was "a vindication" of his policies and of "putting people before politics."
"The days of the Republican majority are numbered," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) told a combination pep rally and news conference. "I am convinced we will regain our majority in 2000." Democratic leaders made the same claim for the Senate.
The GOP losses, while not numerous, underscored the problems of a party that is riven by ideological and regional factionalism, divided over its agenda and facing a Democratic Party that has begun to emulate the approach Clinton has taken in two successful presidential elections. Those divisions will shape intraparty battles in the 106th Congress and the fight for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Clinton showed it is possible to appeal to middle-class swing voters while maintaining the enthusiasm of core Democratic constituencies such as organized labor, African Americans and Latinos. Many Democratic candidates, from Davis in California to various southern Democrats, copied that approach in successful campaigns Tuesday.
But Republicans are still struggling nationally to find a formula that excites their most conservative supporters without alarming independents and moderate Republicans, particularly women, in swing and suburban districts.
Eight of the 11 House districts lost by the GOP on Tuesday were won by Clinton in 1996. Several of those districts were in the kind of suburban areas Republicans must hold in presidential campaigns if they hope to win the White House.
The loss of governorships in Alabama and South Carolina and a Senate seat in North Carolina also was a reminder to Republicans that their increasing strength in the South cannot be taken for granted.
"The large minority community provided a base that would always keep Democrats reasonably competitive at the state level," said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP pollster. "I believed yesterday and I believe today that [Republicans] are the majority party in the South, but a majority party can still lose elections."
Lungren's loss in California, coupled with the victory by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Democratic victories in other statewide constitutional offices, poses a significant challenge for the party. Lungren won only 38 percent of the vote, exactly what Robert J. Dole won in a three-way presidential race in 1996, and he managed just 17 percent of the growing Latino vote -- even less than Dole.
"I think we're in a big hole nationally," said Steve Merksamer, a GOP strategist in California. "But we're in a very big hole in California."
Despite the loss of the California governorship, GOP governors remain a bright spot for the party. Incumbent governors in Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee and Oklahoma demonstrated broad appeal as they won big reelection victories. And Jeb Bush, the son of former president George Bush and brother of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, captured the governor's mansion in Florida, the biggest GOP gubernatorial pickup.
Many Republicans agreed that Tuesday's results strengthened the expected presidential bid by George W. Bush, both because of the problems the party had generally and because of the scope of his victory. Bush, who campaigned on education, taxes and crime, won 69 percent of the vote, capturing 65 percent of the women's vote and 49 percent of the Latino vote. "He got a big win," said Tom Rath, Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire and an adviser to former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, another likely presidential candidate.
Gingrich pointed to governors as the example the party should follow and promised that congressional leaders would work more closely with the governors. The party, he said, must emphasize reforming government and lowering taxes. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) agreed. "I think that we have to get back to our basics," he said.
Ayres cited gubernatorial successes as a lesson the party must relearn. "Pragmatic conservatism works," he said. "Ideological conservatism doesn't."
Republicans leaders acknowledged that Democrats had out-organized and out-worked them in the final month of the campaign and admitted the Democratic resurgence caught them by surprise.
They now face an energized Democratic opposition in the 106th Congress and the prospect of more intraparty division. But while many Republicans complained that the party had put too much emphasis on impeaching Clinton and had failed to stake out an aggressive, conservative agenda, they disagreed on what the party must do to put its house in order.
Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, a likely GOP presidential candidate in 2000, accused the party of abandoning its values and principles. He called for major tax cuts and a focus on education vouchers, medical savings accounts and reforms in Social Security. "Mealy-mouthed rhetoric is no substitute for a muscular, substantive agenda," he wrote in a memo.
Asked in a telephone interview whether Republicans need new leadership in Congress, Forbes said, "The key is to push [a bold] agenda. If they do, the leadership problem will take care of itself. If not, there will be new leaders."
Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, accused GOP leaders in Congress of demoralizing religious conservatives by retreating from a conservative agenda. Citing results from a Tuesday night poll by his organization, Tate said Republican support among religious conservatives declined dramatically in 1998. Four years ago, he said, religious conservatives supported Republicans over Democrats 67 percent to 20 percent. On Tuesday, they favored GOP House candidates 54 to 31 percent.
"If the 106th Congress does not immediately take up pro-family, conservative issues and talk about them, not just for one day, but day in and day out, if they don't do these things, things will get worse before they get better for them [GOP congressional leaders]," Tate said at a news conference.
Two leaders of the Christian-social right, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, said Gingrich and the rest of the House leadership should be ousted.
Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council said Republican candidates "bailed out on social issues" and lost. "We just ran one of the least ideological campaigns we've run in years and none of us feel very good this morning," he said.
But other Republicans warned against a shift to the right. "I really see this as a clarion call from the nation to bring the political parties back to the pragmatic governing center," said former representative Steve Gunderson (Wis.) "It's a wonderful warning to my party between now and the year 2000."
"People want a centrist, pragmatic approach to solving the problems that face this country," said former Maine governor John McKernan, who heads the Republican Main Street Partnership. "Republicans have no choice but to govern that way."
Democrats, who had expected some modest losses in Congress, celebrated gaining a platform from which to assault the narrow Republican majorities in Congress.
In the Senate, campaign officials argued that the five-seat gain Democrats would need to retake control (with a tie-breaking vote from a Democratic vice president) is possible. Of the 14 Democrats up for reelection in 2000, only five appear to be potentially vulnerable. Republicans must defend 19 seats, including nine where the winner received 56 percent of the vote or less in the banner Republican year of 1994.
On the House side, where Democrats have crept within a half-dozen votes of a majority, 22 Republicans and 18 Democrats won Tuesday by less than 55 percent of the vote. Democrats pointed out they lost no seats this year in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania, despite the coattails of popular GOP governors, and said the odds will be more favorable in 2000.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.) said that 11 sitting Republicans pledged to serve only six years when they were first elected in 1994. Either those seats will be open in 2000 or those Republicans will have to explain their change of heart, Frost said. "It's a good opportunity for us either way."
Rival factions of the party lost no time in claiming credit for the Democrats' showing. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a news conference that "working families proved that we really do have the power . . . with union members turning out at record levels . . . and with African American and Latino participation way up over the last midterm election."
Labor switched strategy from 1996, cutting back its TV ads and putting that money into grass-roots organizing. Sweeney said unions sent out 392 field organizers, sent 9.5 million pieces of mail to union households and made 5.5 million phone calls. The result was an increase in the proportion of union household members in the electorate from 14 percent in 1994 to 22 percent on Tuesday.
At another news conference, however, leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) said Tuesday's returns showed the party's candidates were able to win contests in suburban districts and southern states because they moved to the center. "In race after race," said DLC President Al From, "where Republicans tried to yell, 'Liberal, liberal, liberal,' it didn't stick."
A DLC exit poll emphasized gains for Democratic candidates among the middle-class and the upper middle-class, buttressing From's claim that the approach Clinton has urged on his party offers an opportunity for melding minorities and workers with voters outside that Democratic core.
Exit polls in some of the Democratic breakthrough races in the South supported that claim. In South Carolina, where James H. "Jim" Hodges (D) upset Gov. David M. Beasley (R), blacks made up one-quarter of the electorate and gave Hodges 92 percent of the vote. But Hodges also broke even with Beasley among voters in the $30,000-to-$75,000 income range and beat him among those with family incomes between $75,000 and $100,000.
Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Juliet Eilperin, Eric Pianin and Lois Romano, and researcher Ben White, contributed to this report.
FINAL CONGRESSIONAL RESULTS
Democrats gain 5 seats.
Seat balance unchanged.
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