WASHINGTON — Republicans bent on establishing the GOP as a permanent force in the Old South scored important Sun Belt victories Tuesday, but they apparently fell just short of restoring parity in state governorships across the country, where Democrats have held the majority since 1970.
With 36 governorships at stake, 19 of them open races and 15 of those being vacated by Democrats, Republican strategists went into Tuesday's balloting viewing the gubernatorial contests as a "generational opportunity." Although they apparently fell short of gaining a majority, their gains laid considerable groundwork for the 1988 presidential campaign.
Though returns were still far from complete, the GOP apparently had picked up a net gain of seven governor's offices, holding leads for 10 offices formerly held by Democrats but trailing in three--Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Oregon--that they had hoped to maintain.
Gain of 10 Needed
They needed a net gain of 10 to achieve parity. Partial returns indicated they would seize Democratic seats in Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin. Although early returns were close in Arizona, one television network was projecting a Republican victory.
In a not altogether unexpected, but nevertheless stinging, blow to Democrats, Gov. Mark White was apparently turned out of the Texas governor's mansion by former Gov. William Clements.
With 85% of the vote counted, Clements, a one-time oil field roughneck and a former deputy secretary of defense, led White 54% to 46% and was projected as the winner.
White's apparent loss was a psychological setback for Democrats looking toward the 1988 presidential campaign, for the party has not elected a President in modern times without Texas in its column.
Cuomo Race Watched
As the parties waged their heated campaigns for the open seats, Democratic strategists looking toward 1988 kept a close eye on New York and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's race against an out-organized and underfunded GOP challenger, Westchester County official Andrew O'Rourke, who was conceded even by the Republican Governors' Assn. to have no chance.
With 95% of the vote in, Cuomo, a presumed candidate for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, had 65% of the vote and was leading among all ethnic and age groups. At that pace, he was running even ahead of Grover Cleveland, who was elected governor with 58.4% of the vote in 1882, two years before he was elected President.
In Illinois, the Democrats had long since watched their chance of regaining one of their traditional power centers vanish. Democratic nominee Adlai E. Stevenson III found himself with prospect of running on a ticket with candidates supporting political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Stevenson opted to run as an independent instead, and he lost badly to incumbent Republican Gov. James R. Thompson. With 82% of the vote counted, Thompson held a comfortable 56% to 44% lead.
In Florida, former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party three years ago, appeared to be on his way to victory over former Democratic legislator Steve Pajcic in the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, who was elected to the Senate.
With 94% of the vote counted, Martinez led by an overall margin of 10 percentage points. Network surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that he won by running far ahead among upper income groups and white voters while losing the black vote decisively.
In Alabama, a brawl growing out of the state's Democratic primary left the party in wreckage and helped elect Guy Hunt, a 53-year-old farmer-preacher-salesman, the first Republican governor in 112 years.
While the Republicans were carrying out their Sun Belt turnovers in Alabama, Florida and Texas, the outcome in the hotly contested South Carolina race, where popular Democratic Gov. Richard Riley is retiring, was closer. But with 90% of the vote counted, Republican Rep. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., was the apparent winner, holding a four percentage point lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Daniel.
The GOP inroads into the Old South were sharply tempered by the outcome in Tennessee where the party had a chance to have one Republican governor succeed another for the first time in the South.
There, former Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn had been an early favorite over House Speaker Ned R. McWherter, who fought through bitter three-way primary last June. But in a campaign that focused much of its attention on the candidates' personal finances, McWherter came from behind. With 96% of the vote counted Tuesday night, he held a comfortable 54% to 46% lead.
In Nebraska where, for the first time, both parties nominated a woman as their standard bearers, Republican State Treasurer Kay Orr was the apparent victor over over former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis, holding a margin of 52% to 48% with 88% of the vote in. The winner succeeds outgoing Democratic Gov. Robert Kerry.