Headlines from the latest round of primaries noted the precedent-breaking victories of former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein as the first woman nominee for governor of California and former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt as the first black nominee for senator from North Carolina. Both are Democrats, and for a party badly in need of energy, excitement and potential stars, this was welcome news indeed.
Gantt's challenge to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the conservative liberals most love to hate, automatically becomes one of the few races in this off-year that will draw money and attention across the country.
Feinstein's battle with Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) for the California governorship fits into that same small category, and not just because of her personality. The next governor will help determine how the congressional district boundary lines are drawn and which party will control the largest and most rapidly growing delegation in the House of Representatives.
Long ago, both parties agreed that the most important battles this year were the governorships of three fast-growing mega-states -- California, Texas and Florida -- all held by Republicans today. It is now clear that the Democrats pose a real threat in at least two, and perhaps all three, of those states. In California, it is no secret that the Republicans who recruited Wilson to run for the governorship that incumbent George Deukmejian is vacating after eight years did not fancy Feinstein as his opponent. They would far and away have preferred state attorney general John Van de Kamp, a sincere technocrat with a gaping vulnerability for failing to prosecute one of the Hillside Strangler cases.
As a reporter, I have to keep my distance from that race, because my oldest son worked for Feinstein in her last couple of years as mayor. But there's no bias involved in telling you that influential Republicans regard her combination of femininity, governmental experience and freshness to statewide politics as a potent mixture in an electorate apparently eager to shake things up in Sacramento.
Feinstein is the second woman the Democrats have picked in the banner contests. State Treasurer Ann Richards won a tough primary and runoff for the nomination against businessman and political novice Clayton Williams for the open governorship in Texas. In the third key Sunbelt contest, Florida, Democrats will not choose between favored former senator Lawton Chiles and Rep. Bill Nelson until September. But polls already show Chiles running ahead of embattled Gov. Bob Martinez (R).
Feinstein and Chiles are moderates in the contexts of their states. Richards is a liberal in a state that has not elected a liberal governor or senator in the last quarter-century. What they have in common is an ability to communicate strong personal leadership traits, even to a decidedly cynical electorate.
That cynicism is what strikes the thoughtful analysts on both the Republican and Democratic sides. Robert Teeter, President Bush's pollster, told his partner, Mary Lukens, the other day that ''there's no election out there.'' He meant that voters are ignoring most political ads and passing up in droves the opportunity to pick candidates in primaries. Speaking of the fall campaign, Teeter said: ''It will be a six-week war.''
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin agrees. ''The turnout has been low to abysmally low,'' he said. ''We are continuing to turn people off to the process, even in campaigns that are free of negatives.''
What many suspect is that voters who are turned off by the politicians in the spring would not need much of a stimulus to turn against the politicians in the autumn. And that could pose a danger to the Republicans defending their party's hold on governorships in the three key mega-states -- even if it helps the GOP on balance in its uphill battle to regain control of the Senate.
The problem will be worse for Republicans if the economy should stir fresh concerns among the voters. Already, the GOP governors of Florida, Texas and California have been forced to do what President Bush has refused to do. Every one of them has either recommended or signed tax increases this year:
Texas Gov. William P. Clements last week signed a sales-tax increase to solve a financing crisis in the public schools.
Deukmejian led the battle for an initiative to double the state's gas tax, narrowly approved by the voters last Tuesday.
And Martinez has an even bigger tax package (in relative terms) moving through the Florida legislature in order to fill a $1 billion gap in his $11 billion budget.
Restrictions on federal domestic spending (unfunded Medicaid mandates, for example) have added to the problems in these growth states. Republicans in all three states now look to Bush -- and the Washington budget negotiations -- to make the decisions that will help keep the national economy growing. If it falters, the Democrats are poised to pounce.