Tuesday's low-turnout midterm election left Democrats encouraged by some gains in a few important states, President Bush likely to face more partisan strife in Congress next year, and both parties searching for a message that will capture the imagination and trust of voters in 1992.

A restive electorate gave mixed signals on issues like taxes and abortion, and failed to deliver on what some had thought would be the dominant political motif of 1990 -- a "kick-the-bums-out" movement against incumbents in Congress. Instead, voters directed their frustrations closer to home, as governors proved far more vulnerable to the sour mood.

"The story of this election is stability in Congress and change in the states," said Thomas E. Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. "Members of Congress have figured out ways, in a period of divided government and unpleasant choices, of avoiding direct responsibility for what they do. Governors are on the line every day. They -- or their successors -- are held accountable."

Although margins of victory in congressional races were down, all but one of the 32 Senate incumbents on Tuesday's ballot were reelected, as were more than 96 percent of the 406 House incumbents seeking reelection. It marked the fourth straight election in which 95 percent or more of House incumbents were returned to office, a stretch of stability unprecedented in American electoral history.

But in the 36 gubernatorial races, six incumbents were tossed out of office and in at least eight open-seat races the state executive mansion changed partisan hands. Roughly 40 percent of the governors' contests Tuesday resulted in a partisan switch, while less than 4 percent of congressional races did.

While Democrats picked up governorships in Texas and Florida, the biggest prize of the day -- the California governorship -- stayed in GOP hands as Sen. Pete Wilson (R) edged out former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D).

The only Senate incumbent to lose was two-term Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn), who appeared to have been caught in the crosswinds of virulent voter reaction to ethical lapses by other prominent politicians in his state.

Overall, Democrats wound up with a gain of one Senate seat and nine House seats, including that won by independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Depending on the outcome of an Arizona gubernatorial race that appears headed for a runoff, there will be little or no net change in the partisan alignment of governorships, although two independents were elected Tuesday: former Republican senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in Connecticut and former GOP interior secretary Walter Hickel in Alaska. Democrats held 29 governorships before Tuesday's voting and will end up with the same number or one less depending on the outcome of the Arizona contest.

In the eight big-state governorships that will play a critical role in next year's redistricting battles, the parties came out of the election just as they went in -- split 4 to 4. But there was a geographic realignment as Democrats picked up the GOP-held governorships in Texas and Florida while Republicans struck back by winning Democratic-held governorships in the Frost Belt states of Michigan and Ohio.

The victories of California's Wilson, an environmentalist and abortion rights advocate, and Illinois Secretary of State Jim Edgar, a supporter of a state income tax surcharge to pay for education programs, gave the GOP's new crop of big-state chief executives a moderate-to-progressive look.

Democrats blamed the weakening economy for their poor gubernatorial showing in the Midwest, where Michigan's two-term incumbent Gov. James J. Blanchard (D) was surprised by state Senate president John Engler (R), and where Minnesota's 10-year incumbent, Rudy Perpich (D) was upended by state Auditor General Arne Carlson (R).

It is "ironic," said retiring Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, that Democrats "may be paying for a Republican recession."

But Michele Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors' Association, argued that the gubernatorial races this year were "dominated either by personality or by taxes."

Incumbents who raised taxes after saying they wouldn't -- such as Florida's Bob Martinez (R) and Nebraska's Kay Orr (R) -- paid a clear price. That lesson cannot be comforting to Bush as he looks toward his 1992 reelection prospects.

The anti-tax vote, however, did not have a free run on Tuesday. In Massachusetts, voters beat back a ballot initiative that would have reduced taxes to 1988 levels; in Illinois, voters turned back gubernatorial nominee Neil F. Hartigan (D) despite his promise to eliminate a controversial income tax surcharge, and in Texas, they elected gubernatorial nominee Ann Richards (D) despite her opponent's charge that she planned to raise taxes as soon as she takes office.

"The tax message at a national level did not work itself out in a clear way," noted Stuart Eizenstat, a long-time Democratic strategist. "If there were really a tax revolt, one would have expected a broader statement against those who voted for the federal budget package," which included new gasoline, excise and Medicare taxes.

One issue that did appear to have a specific impact in the races where it was raised was affirmative action programs and the hiring and promotion "quotas" that critics say often result from such programs. In California, Wilson opened his campaign last summer by branding Feinstein as a supporter of hiring quotas, and in North Carolina, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) closed his campaign by doing the same to his opponent, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt (D).

"This is an explosive issue, and as Republican have lost two major issues they have used in the past -- taxes and anti-communism -- this quota issue is going to be a vital theme for them," Eizenstat said. "I think Bush knew exactly what he was doing when he vetoed the civil rights bill {last month}. That's what hurt Gantt so much."

Helms's graphic depiction of the quota issue in television ads in the final week of the campaign may have helped mobilize his base. Turnout in North Carolina was up slightly over the last midterm election of 1986 -- as it was in 24 other states and the District of Columbia. However, turnout fell in 25 states. Overall, according to a preliminary estimate by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, turnout appeared virtually identical to the 36.4 percent level of 1986, which was the lowest of any midterm in 42 years.

With national polls showing voters worried about a recession at home and war abroad, incensed by the savings and loan scandal and angered by budget gridlock in Washington, many analysts had projected more turnover in Congress.

Instead, the "ins" were tossed back in as anti-incumbency turned out be a "a mood, not a movement," said Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.).

But lurking beneath the continued high congressional reelection rates was a pattern of declining victory margins. In 1988, only 50 of 408 House incumbents seeking reelection -- a paltry 12 percent -- were held to vote majorities of less than 60 percent. This year, that number grew to 106.

"That's the only place the anger had a chance to show up," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause. "I just think we did not have real elections or a real choice in Congress this year. We are dealing with a rigged system in which the vast majority of incumbents are financially unopposed."

Federal Election Commission records showed that, up through the last two weeks of the campaign, congressional incumbents had outspent challengers by a ratio of roughly 4 to 1. Money was not the only factor in their success, however. Both parties did a poor job of recruiting congressional challengers this year -- not an uncommon problem in the last election before congressional redistricting.

"You have to be nuts to run in a year like 1990 because you know that if you win, your district is likely to be shifted out from underneath you by the mapmakers in 1992," noted Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Republicans were pleased with their success in recruiting five House members to run against seemingly vulnerable Democratic senators, but all five -- perhaps handicapped by their own identification with Washington -- lost by sizable margins. To add insult to injury, the GOP lost three of the five House seats vacated by their Senate challengers -- those represented by Reps. Lynn Martin in Illinois, Claudine Schneider in Rhode Island and Pat Saiki in Hawaii.

With only one incumbent senator knocked out of office this year -- Minnesota's Boschwitz -- it was the best year for senatorial survival since 1966.

Voters frustrated by their inability to kick incumbents out of office did find a way to limit their terms of office in Colorado and California. The California initiative places limits on state officeholders while the Colorado measure would apply members of Congress as well. It is expected to face a constitutional challenge.

A nationwide Voter Research and Survey exit poll Tuesday showed that, by 70 to 28 percent, voters favored limiting the terms of congressional incumbents. There had been similarly lopsided public support for term limit initia- tives in California when two of them were placed on the ballot at the beginning of the year. Once they were subjected to a heavy negative advertising blitz, however, one measure that included a public campaign finance component was turned down by a 3 to 2 margin, while the other measure passed narrowly.

All across the country, voters treated ballot initiatives as a way to strike out against big government. Two major environmental referenda -- California's "Big Green" and New York's $2 billion evironmental bond issue -- were voted down, the former by a wide margin, the latter by a narrow one. Both would have called for major expansion of government powers and spending.

Oregonians approved a new ceiling on property tax rates and a handful of other new tax caps passed, but the most radical tax rollback measure before the voters Tuesday -- the one in Massachusetts -- was defeated.

Voters turned down a restrictive antiabortion law in Oregon and defeated a parental notification measure there as well. Across the country, however, abortion seems to have played a mixed and marginal role in Tuesday's elections. In gubernatorial races where it had been thrust onto center stage, some abortion rights candidates won -- Richards (D) in Texas, Lawton Chiles (D) in Florida and Arne Carlson (R) in Minnesota -- and some antiabortion candidates won -- George Voinovich (R) in Ohio, Terry Branstad (R) in Iowa, Joan Finney (D) in Kansas and John Engler (R) in Michigan.

The balloting produced some oddities: the election of the first black Republican member of the House in five decades, Gary Franks, a real estate investor and city alderman in Waterbury, Conn.; the election of the first Socialist member of the House in six decades, Bernard Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington, Vt., and the election of two independents to governorships, Hickel in Alaska and Weicker in Connecticut, both of whom are maverick Republicans at war with their state GOP establishments.

More women than ever ran for office, but there was no net change in their representation at the highest levels. Next year, just as this year, women will occupy three governorships, two Senate seats and 29 U.S. House seats.

One of the issues that Democrats had high hopes for in the midterm election -- tax-the-rich economic populism -- did not have an especially good day.

While Wellstone harped on that theme in his upset victory over Boschwitz in Minnesota, he probably owed the win more to the turmoil in the governors' race, where the Republican Party's original nominee, Jon Grunseth, had to drop out of the race just nine days before the election following charges of sexual misconduct.

Meantime, other Democratic Senate challengers around the country who seized on the tax fairness issue came up short. And in one of the most surprising results, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) was held to just 52 percent of the vote, apparently because of anger in his state at the redistributive tax program put into effect earlier this year by New Jersey's newly elected Democratic Gov. Jim Florio.

"New Jersey has been a laboratory of liberalism over the past 12 months and it seems pretty clear that as far as the electorate is concerned, the experiment has failed," said Democratic strategist William Galston. "It has to be seen as a negative verdict on aggressive and redistributive government policy."

Republicans also had troubles with the tax issue in the campaign as Bush's abandonment of his no-new-taxes pledge left the GOP, for the first time in a decade, without a clear message on taxes, and with the moderate and conservative wings of the party at war with one another over the issue.

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.