A throw-the-bums-out uprising in Massachusetts and passage of the nation's first term-limitation measure for state legislators in Oklahoma brought the 1990 primary season near its close this week with a pair of angry swipes by voters at politics-as-usual.
Political analysts were divided over whether Tuesday's primary results might presage a nationwide revolt against incumbents this November, but they agreed that term-limitation measures such as the one that passed by a 2-1 ratio in Oklahoma are the wave of the future.
"If term-limitation initiatives had been on 50 state ballots, I suspect they would have passed in all 50 states," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.
Measures limiting the terms of state legislators will be on ballots Nov. 6 in California and Colorado, and organizers yesterday mapped plans to force them onto ballots in up to 15 more states by 1992.
While such bills affect only state offices, Eddie Mahe, consultant to a group called Americans for Term Limitation, said yesterday that the overriding goal of such groups is to force Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms. "Once you get that many voters in that many states aboard this bandwagon, it's going to be very hard for Congress to stop it," he said.
Incumbents had more immediate concerns yesterday, as they mulled the potential for a nationwide November echo of Tuesday's cry of voter anger in Massachusetts, where Boston University President John R. Silber, a political maverick, defeated former attorney general Francis X. Bellotti by 53 to 44 percent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; former U.S. attorney William F. Weld defeated House Minority Leader Steven Pierce by 60 to 40 percent in the GOP primary; Attorney General James Shannon (D) was upset in his bid for renomination; and House Speaker George Keverian (D) was upset in his race for state treasurer.
"We don't know where and we don't know who, but there are incumbents who seem safe now who are going to wake up the day after the election in November and find themselves out of a job," Garin said. "There's something really stirring out there," he said, attributing the mood to a downturn in the economy and a rise in voter cynicism.
But Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said that "it is very dangerous to extrapolate results from places like Massachusetts or Washington, D.C.," where Sharon Pratt Dixon won last week's Democratic mayoral primary with a campaign waged against the local political establishment.
Newhouse's note of caution is supported by primary results nationwide. Of 405 members of Congress seeking reelection, only one, Rep. Donald E. "Buz" Lukens (R-Ohio), was knocked off in a primary, and he was campaigning with the burden of a misdemeanor conviction for having had sex with a minor. None of the 33 senators seeking reelection lost a primary.
"If I had to guess right now, I'd say that no more than three incumbent senators and 10 or 15 congressmen will be knocked off this November," said Mark Gersh, a political analyst with the National Committee for an Effective Congress. He attributed the likelihood of high reelection rates to the lopsided fund-raising advantages enjoyed by incumbents, the failure of the parties to recruit higher quality challengers, and the "I-hate-Con- gress-but-love-my-congressman syndrome."
Many analysts expect challengers to do better in gubernatorial races. "The difference is that individual congressmen have figured out how to distance themselves from the institution in which they serve, but that option isn't available to a governor," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "For better or worse, a governor is the institution."
Gubernatorial contests have already been good to mavericks this year. In Texas, cowboy-entrepreneur Clayton Williams (R) has parlayed an anti-Austin theme into a big lead over state Treasurer Ann Richards (D). In Florida, former senator Lawton Chiles (D), who is running an anti-politics campaign by limiting contributions to $100 each, is leading Gov. Bob Martinez (R). In Kansas, state Treasurer Joan Finney (D) upset former governor John Carlin in the primary and is leading Gov. Mike Hayden (R) in the general election campaign. In Rhode Island, businessman Bruce Sundlun (D) is well ahead of Gov. Edward D. DiPrete (R), and in Connecticut, former senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R) broke with his party and is running as an independent in a race to succeed Gov. William A. O'Neill (D), who is not seeking reelection.
In Massachusetts, Silber yesterday described his primary victory as a "wake-up call" to the national Democratic Party, saying voters are demanding fiscal restraint from Congress as well as from state governments.
Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown promptly issued a statement pledging that the national party is "renewed and united" behind Silber, who during the primary campaign had aimed barbs at his party establishment, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) and Dukakis's now-repudiated "Massachusetts Miracle."
Through gritted teeth, Democratic analysts said -- and Republicans concurred -- that Silber's victory gives Democrats a much better chance at holding the governorship against the wealthy, reform-minded Weld, who had looked forward to running an anti-politician's campaign against Bellotti.
Taylor reported from Washington, Daly from Boston.