Ideological Appeals Rejcted in Gov. Races
By Edward Walsh
For Democrats, the best news of the night came out of California, where the party captured the governor's office of the nation's largest state for the first time in 16 years, and from the South, where Democrats ousted Republican governors who were backed by Christian conservatives in South Carolina and Alabama.
But the GOP still maintained a healthy majority among the country's 50 governors, as more than a dozen GOP incumbents were returned to office, several in victories of landslide proportions.
And the governors' races provided the biggest surprise of the night: the election of Jesse "The Body" Ventura in Minnesota, where the former professional wrestler who ran under the banner of Ross Perot's Reform Party defeated seasoned and well-known Democratic and Republican opponents.
Republicans won 23 of the 36 gubernatorial contests Tuesday while Democrats won 11 and independents two. There was a net loss of one governor's office for Republicans, but the GOP still controls 31 of the 50 states.
There were some reversals of historic trends. In Iowa, state Sen. Tom Vilsack defeated former representative Jim Ross Lightfoot (R) to become the state's first Democratic governor since 1969. In Colorado, Republican state Treasurer Bill Owens's victory broke a 24-year Democratic hold on the governor's mansion.
But overall on Tuesday voters opted for continuity in their state capitals, returning to office incumbents who have gained reputations as innovative policymakers on important state issues such as education and welfare reform. Incumbent Republican governors who won reelection with close to or more than 60 percent of the vote included John G. Rowland in Connecticut, John Engler in Michigan, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, Don Sundquist in Tennessee, George W. Bush in Texas and Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin.
The same was true of incumbent Democratic governors Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and John Kitzhaber in Oregon. In California, the nation's most populous state, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis defeated Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren. Coupled with the party's control of both houses of the state legislature, Davis's victory put Democrats in position to have a major impact on the makeup of the U.S. House early in the next century, when congressional district lines are redrawn after the 2000 census.
Nonetheless, said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, "the Republicans are in pretty good shape, especially in terms of redistricting." He said Bush's landslide victory in Texas was especially important for congressional redistricting in the largest state in the South.
Republicans were stung by the defeat of Govs. David M. Beasley in South Carolina and Fob James Jr. in Alabama, but they could take comfort in the fact that their southern base is bracketed by the brothers Bush in Texas by George and in Florida by Jeb, who defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy Mac- Kay in the governor's race. When Jeb Bush takes office in January, the two sons of former president George Bush will hold the highest elective offices in the nation's second- (Texas) and fourth- (Florida) most populous states.
A lesson from those races and others is that "pragmatic conservatism wins but ideological conservatism loses," said Whit Ayers, an Atlanta-based Republican pollster. "Jeb Bush is conservative but he didn't come across as a particularly ideological conservative. George W. presents a very pragmatic image that is very popular across the country."
Another lesson is that "incumbents win and win handily," Ayers said. "A lot of people will say you have to be a moderate to be elected. I don't buy that. I don't consider Engler a moderate but he comes across as a pragmatic conservative."
The National Governors' Association said the top issues in the gubernatorial campaigns were education reform, fiscal responsibility, results-focused environmentalism, health care and crime. In Alabama and South Carolina, the only states where governors lost reelection bids, education, tied to state lottery proposals, was key to their defeats.
Democrat Lt. Gov. Donald Siegelman in Alabama and Democratic lawyer James H. "Jim" Hodges in South Carolina both pushed plans to create state lotteries and use the revenue for college scholarships and other education programs, an idea that was resisted by James and Beasley, in part because of opposition to gambling among their core supporters of Christian conservatives. Ayers noted that the two states border Georgia, where retiring Democratic Gov. Zell Miller pioneered the lottery idea and where the victory of state Sen. Roy E. Barnes (D) maintained the Democrats' 126-year lock on the governor's mansion.
"The mandate was for practical governance," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster in Washington who worked for the winning Hodges campaign. "People are looking to get the basics done first [and] the number one basic that people care about is strengthening public education."
"Siegelman and Hodges ran on the lottery," Garin added, "but what was clear in both cases was that the lottery was a means to the end of improving public education. They both completely dominated the high ground as the education candidates."
The lottery issue also boosted the Democrats' share of the white vote, Black said. "That was the difference," he said, adding: "It looks to me that the relative success of these governors' races in election after election really points to the Republican governors who are practical politicians rather than ideologues."
Garin, who did polling for losing candidate MacKay in Florida, said education was also an important issue there. He said that in his losing 1994 campaign for governor, Jeb Bush ran as the "voucher candidate," pushing a pet Republican program to provide public money to pay for private schooling.
"In this race, he was forced to pull way back on vouchers," Garin said. "His emphasis was on strengthening public education. He swore off any broad-based voucher program. That was true all across the country. In states where Republicans were not competitive on the issue of education, they just weren't competitive as candidates."
In many states with open races, the winning candidates positioned themselves near the political center. That was true in Massachusetts, where acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) won a full four-year term and where Jane M. Swift, who gave birth to her first child last month, was elected lieutenant governor. It was also true in Illinois, where George Ryan, the bland, nonideological but popular Republican secretary of state, defeated Rep. Glenn Poshard, a conservative downstate Democrat.
"If you're searching for some threads of continuity across the country, I think you're seeing people recoiling from ideologues," said David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant.
"Ryan is basically a politician and not an ideologue," Axelrod added. "He's sort of one of these guys you hire to make the thing go. We had a Democratic candidate who was to the right of Ryan on a series of issues guns and choice and the environment."
In California, Axelrod said: "Davis is a middle-of-the-road politician. He's not easily categorized. There is that thread among both Democrats and Republicans. If you look at the two Bushes, they really present a moderate front. Look at [reelected Republican New York Gov. George E.] Pataki, who's made environmentalism important and is pro-choice."
Although Republicans continue to hold a solid majority of the nation's governorships, Garin said Tuesday marked an important turning point for the Democrats. "The damage was done in 1994," he said. "The Democrats ended up digging a very deep hole for themselves in governorships and we've got a long road ahead in building back up. But you really got a feeling that Tuesday was a turning of a corner for the Democrats, especially in the South."
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