WASHINGTON — Led by George W. and Jeb Bush, potentially the most compelling political brother act since John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, Republicans on Tuesday maintained their grip on a majority of the nation's governorships as a power base for their political future.
In Minnesota, in perhaps the most captivating contest of the election, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler, talk-show host and part-time mayor of a Minneapolis suburb, was the projected winner against Democratic Atty. Gen. Hubert H. Humphrey III, son of the late vice president, and Republican Norm Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul.
Discounted by most professional politicians, the Reform Party candidate declared himself "Governor Body" late Tuesday as he addressed a crowd of cheering supporters. "In 1998, the American dream lives on in Minnesota as we shocked the world," Ventura said.
Facing the loss of 1998 election's richest prize, the governorship of California, the nation's biggest state, the GOP was buoyed by George W. Bush's reelection in Texas, the second biggest state.
The eldest son of former President Bush was running ahead of Democratic Land Commissioner Garry Mauro by a margin of more than 2 to 1. The big victory for the 52-year-old former managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team capped four successful years in Austin that earned him poll standings so high it was hard for Democrats to find a candidate willing to oppose him.
Republicans got another boost from 45-year-old Jeb Bush's victory in Florida, the fourth-largest state, which now has a Democratic governor. In that contest, the younger Bush won easily over Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. After narrowly losing the governorship four years ago, Jeb Bush, criticized for his ultraconservatism, dramatically revised his political profile in his second try for the office, reaching out to such traditional Democratic constituencies as blacks and Jews.
Double-Header Sweep for Bushes
The double-header sweep for the Bushes in these two big states was bound to give considerable impetus to the prospective presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. Bush in 2000, a contest in which he is already the early GOP front-runner.
In other big state gubernatorial contests, Republicans easily won in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan; were projected as winning in Ohio and in Illinois; while Democrats held on to the governorship of Georgia. Democrats also unseated two incumbent Republican governors in the South and won the governorship of Iowa, which had been long held by the GOP.
But the results of the gubernatorial elections in all 36 states being contested Tuesday--24 now held by the GOP--were laden with plenty of additional significance for both parties. After the next census, governors will play a major role in deciding who wins and who loses in the subsequent struggles over reapportionment of congressional delegations.
In addition, for Republicans, the contests provide an important ideological test, because many of their governors--by stressing problem-solving rather than hot-button issues such as abortion--have established a more pragmatic image for the party than their congressional leaders.
GOP governors "combine moderation on social issues with a very tough approach on holding down taxes and curbing crime and trimming the bureaucracy," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia specialist in state politics. "And that's about where most Americans are politically."
Pataki Easily Wins Reelection
Republicans entered the election controlling 32 governorships, with 17 in Democratic hands and one state, Maine, governed by an independent. Before Tuesday's election, GOP holdings included eight of the 10 largest states, all but Georgia and Florida.
In addition to Texas, Republican incumbents swept to victory in three other big states. In New York, Gov. George Pataki routed New York City Council President Peter Vallone. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Thomas J. Ridge trounced State Rep. Ivan Itkin. And in Michigan, two-term incumbent John Engler overwhelmed Dr. Jack Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, whose inflammatory rhetoric had cost him support among fellow Democrats.
Tighter contests were being waged in Ohio and Illinois, two other big states where Republican governors are stepping down. In the Buckeye state, Democrat Lee Fisher, a former attorney general, waged an aggressive campaign against Republican Secretary of State Robert A. Taft, possessor of Ohio's best-known political name, but Taft was projected as the winner. In Illinois, Rep. Glenn Poshard, the Democratic nominee and a blue-collar populist from downstate, was trailing the better-known, better-financed Republican secretary of state, George Ryan.
In Democratic-held Georgia, the bid of wealthy Republican businessman Guy Millner to become the first GOP governor since Reconstruction was turned back by veteran Democratic state Rep. Roy Barnes.