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GOP's Rising Tide Spills Over to Statehouses : Politics: Party takes control of majority of governorships for the first time since 1970. Democrats lose New York, Texas and Pennsylvania.

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

WASHINGTON — The Democrats' Debacle '94 extended to statehouses across the nation Tuesday as Republicans stormed to a majority of governorships for the first time since 1970, ousting liberal icon Mario M. Cuomo in New York and capturing control in every other major state but Florida.

Republicans seized Democratic-held governorships in New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming--and retained the electoral-vote-rich states of California, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota.

Among major states, only Florida remained in Democratic hands, although by a razor-thin margin.

The Maryland race was too close to call.

The gubernatorial balance of power at the beginning of the day Tuesday was Democrats 29, Republicans 19 and independents 2. As the polls closed, it appeared that Republicans would be in power in at least 30 states, a dramatic turnaround that surpassed even optimistic GOP projections.

The GOP gains, coupled with the expected reelections of most of their sitting governors, give the GOP an opportunity to advance its tax-slashing, welfare-cutting, crime-throttling agenda in places where policy is likely to be made in the next two years.

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

In Texas, Democratic Gov. Ann Richards was beaten by businessman and Texas Rangers managing partner George W. Bush, son of former President George Bush, despite her undiminished personal appeal and matchless campaign style. Anti-incumbent fever, paired with deep disenchantment with President Clinton and Democratic Party policies, were too much for her to overcome.

Richards, 61, also suffered from a huge gender gap in the voting: Women supported Richards by 53% to 47%, while male voters backed Bush 57% to 47%.

"What Texans can dream, Texans can do," said Bush, 48, looking like his father as he celebrated his victory. "Texas is ready for a new generation of leadership and I will provide it."

"This is not the end of the world," Richards said. "It is the end of a campaign."

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

The GOP seized six other statehouses from the Democrats, according to partial results. In Oklahoma, former U.S. Atty. Frank Keating defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren; in Tennessee, Rep. Don Sundquist defeated Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen; in New Mexico, Republican businessman Gary Johnson knocked off Democratic Gov. Bruce King; in Wyoming, GOP state Sen. Jim Geringer defeated Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Karpan; in Rhode Island, former federal prosecutor Lincoln Almond beat Democratic state Sen. Myrth York and, in Kansas, GOP Secretary of State Bill Graves defeated Rep. Jim Slattery.

The GOP 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 California's Pete Wilson, William F. Weld of Massachusetts, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, John Engler of Michigan and some newer faces.

One of the few bright spots for Democrats was Florida, where 64-year-old Lawton Chiles fought off 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, 41, accusing Chiles of being insufficiently energetic in his advocacy of the death penalty.

Incumbent Democrats held their seats in Georgia, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas, Nebraska and Vermont. The party also retained the open Statehouse in Oregon when John Kitzhaber defeated Republican Denny Smith.

Georgia incumbent Zell Miller, who was identified by his opponent, businessman Guy Millner, as a virtual clone of the President, won a narrow victory.

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 sought to save his job.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer won easily over his Republican challenger, millionaire oilman Bruce Benson.

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.

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