Davis Wins California's Top Job
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 1998;
Democrats ended Republican dominance of the nation's most-populous state yesterday, sending Gray Davis to the governorship of California and crowning an Election Day that included an unexpected Democratic revival in the South with victories for governor in South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.
Davis, the state's lieutenant governor, defeated Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) by a comfortable margin. Davis will be California's first Democratic governor in 16 years, giving the party control of the state during a time when its 30 million-plus residents and 54 electoral votes exercise increasing influence over the country's political fortunes.
The GOP tempered the good news for the Democrats with resounding victories for brothers George W. Bush (R) in Texas and Jeb Bush (R) in Florida, putting a rising family dynasty at the helm of the country's second- and fourth-largest states. The Republicans also emerged from the election with its nationwide edge in governors' seats intact.
"The big lesson of the evening may well be the Republican governors, who have proven once again that if you are a tax-cutting Republican who reforms government in order to cut taxes, you can get reelected by 65 or 70 percent of the vote," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said on CNN.
But the early surprises belonged to the Democrats. In Alabama, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman defeated Fob James, a hero of the religious right, who has emphasized school prayer. And in South Carolina, attorney Jim Hodges beat David M. Beasley, who angered his conservative base last year with an effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol.
Democrats hailed their success, also celebrating the gain of a seat in Iowa, the first time the party has elected a governor in 32 years. The Democratic candidates in the South, California and Iowa all ran on similar centrist platforms.
Davis, a 55-year-old Vietnam War veteran, has had a long career in California politics, including a stint as a top aide to Jerry Brown, the state's most recent Democratic governor. Although largely unknown by most voters when he began his campaign, Davis won a difficult primary battle. He went on to portray Lungren as an arch-conservative out of step with most Californians.
"This is an absolutely great victory for Democrats," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, speaking of several races. "Basically what has happened is that the Republicans have been so pushed by their ideologues of the right that they had to vacate the middle. ..."
In Minnesota, voters sent a message to both major parties. In what would be the most sensational upset in the country, former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura (Reform) apparently defeated Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III (D) and Norm Coleman (R), who were competing for an open seat.
A solid economy and dearth of major national issues was supposed to translate into a status quo year for the nation's governors. Status quo sounded good to the GOP, because 18 of the party's incumbents were up for reelection, compared to six Democrats, and one independent, Angus King of Maine, who won. Another 11 were open seats, six held by outgoing Republicans and five by outgoing Democrats.
Of the three dozen governors' races this year, perhaps nine or so races were truly competitive. And neither party predicted anything like the great purge of 1994, when voters ran Democrats out of office in herds.
Republicans control 32 governors' mansions, in states that account for 75 percent of the country's population, and the loss of California alone would still keep the party dominant, said Kirsten Fedewa of the Republican Governors' Association.
"The Democrats are trying very hard to base this election on California," Fedewa said. "Why hold an election in the other 49 states? No doubt it is the coveted prize. ... But it's not the end of the conversation."
One conversation the Republicans would rather have is about Florida. Miami businessman Bush, a son of former president George Bush who has never held elective office, maintained a consistently wide lead in the polls over Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who has served in various elected offices for more than three decades.
A win in Florida has national significance for the GOP. For the first time, the party will control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the legislature in a southern state since Reconstruction.
The Bush victory in Florida also establishes a Bush family power base that could last well into the next millennium. George W. Bush overwhelmed his challenger in Texas, Garry Mauro (D), the state's land commissioner. And if George W. Bush runs for president in 2000, as is expected, Jeb Bush could help push Florida's 25 electoral votes his way.
The Siegelman victory is the first time Alabama has elected a Democratic governor since 1982, when George C. Wallace beat Emory Folmar. James, who first won office in the late 1970s as a Democrat before switching parties while out of office in the 1980s, found himself in a tough position this year.
Moderate Republicans accused James of ignoring education and economic issues in favor of social issues, and he never fully recovered from a nasty primary feud with businessman Winton Blount III. Many of the state's business leaders who had supported Blount backed Siegelman in the general election, leaving James severely short of cash.
In Georgia, which has not had a GOP governor since Reconstruction, state Sen. Roy Barnes (D) defeated Guy Millner (R). In 1994, Millner lost a close race to Gov. Zell Miller (D), whose moderate brand of New South politics heavily influenced Siegelman's and Hodges's platforms this year in Alabama and South Carolina.
Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University, said more moderate Republican governors and candidates are doing better in the South, noting the examples of the Bush brothers and Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, who defeated John J. Hooker.
"I think the message is, if you govern from the extreme right of the electoral base you jeopardize the party's future," Black said.
In Iowa, Democratic state Sen. Tom Vilsack's victory over Jim Ross Lightfoot, a former congressmen, was one of the biggest election day surprises: Polls as late as mid-September had Lightfoot up by as much as 20 points.
Republicans were hopeful of picking up Democratic governorships in Colorado, Nevada, and Hawaii. In Nebraska, Mike Johanns beat Bill Hopper (D), picking up a seat for the Republicans.
The GOP kept the governorship of Illinois with George Ryan defeating Glenn Poshard, a conservative downstate Democrat. In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Almond (R) defeated a strong challenge from Myrth York (D) in a repeat of their 1994 race.
A bright spot for the GOP continued to be the upper Midwest, where Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson defeated Democrat Ed Garvey, and Michigan Gov. John Engler defeated controversial attorney Michigan Geoffrey Fieger. Thompson and Engler have made national reputations as pioneers of welfare reform and have drawn broad cross-party support.
And incumbent GOP governors held their jobs in Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Generally, incumbents did well in the Northeast. In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki (R) held a huge lead over rival Peter Vallone, while in Connecticut, Gov. John G. Rowland (R) defeated Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly.
Two popular New England Democrats, Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, both won handily. Among the most competitive races in New England was in Massachusetts, where acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) and Scott Harshbarger (D) engaged in a bitter, negative race. But Cellucci held on to win in a close race.
In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) beat Ellen R. Sauerbrey (R).
Staff writer Linda Perlstein and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company