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Republicans' Rising Tide Spills Over Into Statehouses : Politics: GOP looks virtually certain to control majority of governorships for the first time since 1970. Democrats lose Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas.

November 09, 1994|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Democrats' Debacle '94 extended to statehouses across the nation Tuesday as Republicans appeared virtually certain to control a majority of governorships for the first time since 1970.

Republicans seized Democratic-held governorships in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming and were in position to seize statehouses in Texas and Pennsylvania. The GOP seemed certain to hold the electoral-vote-rich states of California, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota.

The gains, coupled with the expected reelections of many of their sitting governors, is likely to give the Republicans an opportunity to advance their tax-slashing, welfare-cutting, crime-throttling agenda in state capitols in the next two years.

With the looming prospect of sclerosis in Washington, the states will become increasingly important as laboratories of social and fiscal policy, as popular Republican incumbents and energetic newcomers try to make good on conservative campaign pledges.

In Kansas, GOP Secretary of State Bill Graves defeated Rep. Jim Slattery; in Oklahoma, former U.S. Atty. Frank Keating defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren; in Tennessee, Rep. Don Sundquist defeated Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and, in Wyoming, GOP state Sen. Jim Geringer defeated Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Karpan.

In Texas, Ann Richards appeared to be headed for defeat at the hands of businessman George W. Bush, son of the former President, despite her personal popularity and her matchless campaign style. Anti-incumbent fever, paired with deep disenchantment with President Clinton and Democratic Party policies, appeared to be too much for her to overcome.

Richards also suffered from a huge gender gap in the voting: Women supported Richards by 53% to 47%, while male voters backed Bush by 57% to 47%.

As in Senate contests across the nation, Republican gubernatorial candidates tarred their Democratic opponents as allies of the President who espoused outdated Clinton-style liberal policies. While crime rates are declining nationally, anti-crime rhetoric was off the charts in virtually every gubernatorial campaign.

The GOP's statehouse gains promise to play a role in presidential politics in 1996, giving Republicans an organizational and fund-raising advantage in critical regions, while burnishing the presidential or vice-presidential prospects of Pete Wilson of California, William F. Weld of Massachusetts, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, John Engler of Michigan and some newer faces.

The Democrats' brightest spot appeared to be Florida, where 64-year-old incumbent Lawton Chiles was fighting back against a furious challenge by real estate developer Jeb Bush, another son of the former President. The race, like many others across the nation, turned on the question of who was toughest on crime, with Bush accusing Chiles of being insufficiently energetic in his advocacy of the death penalty.

Georgia was the scene of another closely watched race. Democratic incumbent Zell Miller was identified by his opponent, businessman Guy Millner, as a virtual clone of the President, who is deeply unpopular in Georgia and throughout the South. Miller, who gave a nominating speech for Clinton at the Democrats' 1992 convention, moved as far to the right as he could, all but repudiating his support for Clinton and sounding every inch a Republican as he fought to save his job.

Democratic officials acknowledged that they had been swamped by a Republican and anti-incumbent tide but attributed some of their losses to population shifts in the South and Southwest.

"I think in the Southern races there's been a demographic trend over 10 to 20 years, a changing nature of the electorate as retirees from the Midwest move down. The region has become much more competitive than it ever was. It's not like the old days when Democrats had a lock," said Doug Richardson, chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn.

He also cited the deep animosity toward career politicians in the close races in New York, New Mexico and Iowa. Twelve-year Democratic incumbents Mario M. Cuomo in New York and Bruce King in New Mexico, and Republican Terry Branstad in Iowa were in the fights of their political lives.

"Long-term incumbents face a more difficult test with each subsequent election," Richardson said. "The bar keeps getting raised before the voters let you go on. It's a natural phenomenon."

In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Tom Ridge was in position to upset Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, using crime as a cudgel. Singel struggled after the revelation that as head of the state Board of Pardons he recommended parole for a prisoner who is now charged with rape and murder.

Regional concerns drove many of the races, with Republican incumbents in the Midwest benefiting from strong economies and Democratic officeholders in the West suffering from the unpopularity of Clinton's land-use policies.

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