What was supposed to be a lackluster, low-turnout election in which Democrats paid for President Clinton’s sins with huge losses at the polls turned out instead to be a referendum on the leadership of the 105th Congress — and the news is grim for Republicans.
With Democrats poised to pick up a few seats in Congress — the first time the party holding the White House has actually gained seats in a midterm election since 1934 (they normally lose an average of 27) — even Republicans were calling it “an unmitigated disaster” for the ruling party.
The night started badly for the GOP with returns from the East: New York Republican Sen. Al D’Amato lost decisively to U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer, and North Carolina Republican Lauch Faircloth — the man who helped bring us Kenneth Starr — fell to Democratic challenger John Edwards. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lambert Lincoln defeated Republican Fay Boozman to win that state’s Senate seat. Democrats made other surprising gains in the South, picking up governorships in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
But the GOP’s night ended on an even worse note out West, as Democrats won what George Will called “the big prize” when Gray Davis became the first Democratic governor of California since 1982, and Sen. Barbara Boxer scored a come-from-behind victory over Republican challenger Matt Fong. Exit polls showed Fong won the white vote, but Boxer won every other ethnic group, including Asian Americans, who had been expected to support Fong. Democrats picked up some key California congressional races, as well.
There were some quirky surprises from the farm belt. Campaign finance reformers hailed the victory of Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, the crusader who had been considered vulnerable because he refused to take PAC money, even from his own party. Christian Coalition stalwart U.S. Rep. Vince Snowbarger lost to Democrat Dennis Moore in Kansas, while Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first open lesbian elected to Congress. In what may have been the biggest surprise — and a message to both parties — Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Jesse “The Body” Ventura defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey III in Minnesota.
Turnout was expected to be low in this election, and early returns indicate it virtually matched the disappointing level of the 1994 election — 38 percent of registered voters. But the real news may be who turned out: While low-turnout races usually favor Republicans, this year Democratic efforts to energize their base appear to have paid off. Exit polls showed that black and Latino turnout was up 12 percent from 1994, and union households, who made up only 14 percent of voters in ’94, accounted for 21 percent this time around.
Meanwhile, some commentators puzzled over the light turnout of Republicans. “A lot of Republican voters (are) sitting on their hands right now, because the Republican leadership gave them nothing to vote for,” said Salon columnist David Horowitz. Arianna Huffington agreed. “You have no idea how discontented the Republican base was.”
The Salon Election Night Bellwether List — of races and initiatives worth watching — is updated below. But some of the night’s big winners and losers didn’t even appear on a ballot.
Big losers include:
- Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who may not get an impeachment proceeding against President Clinton after all, despite his zealous efforts. Exit polls showed voters think Congress should drop the matter, without even voting to censure the president. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich loyalist David Dreier, R-Calif., told Washington Post columnist David Broder: “We understand people want us to move as expeditiously as possible. The message has come through loud and clear. No Republicans are going to want to drag this out.”
- Newt Gingrich himself, who helped craft anti-Clinton ads that backfired while presiding over a budget deal that caved in to Democratic demands, depriving Republicans of legitimate issues to run on.
- The East Coast media elite — they know who they are — who declared Clinton and the Democrats dead in September.
The big winners are:
- Bill Clinton and Al Gore: They took their act on the road, willing to make the election a referendum on their leadership, and they galvanized the Democratic base — and probably cut short the impeachment theater of the absurd that seemed headed for a long run in Washington, D.C.
- Jesse Jackson and the neglected left wing of the Democratic Party, whose loyalty was rewarded by the sight of Gore rapping on the hustings, ` la Bulworth: “We say legislate, they say investigate.”
- The Bush brothers: Jeb in Florida and George W. in Texas won their gubernatorial races handily, and some Republicans are calling them the future of the party. “George Bush won Texas with a huge proportion of the Hispanic vote,” notes Horowitz. “He’s a Republican who cares about what happens in the inner cities, who cares about America’s multi-ethnic changing face; he’s made great efforts on education.” Huffington calls Horowitz’s theory “a romantic story,” adding, “It’s too early to say. The Republican Party is a very hierarchical, royalist party.”
- Campaign finance reform supporters: Feingold’s reelection should prove support for election spending limits isn’t suicide.
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The Salon Election ’98 Bellwether List:
California: The Democrats complete their sweep of the Golden State.
Democrat Gray Davis beat conservative Republican Dan Lungren.
Incumbent Barbara Boxer staged a come-from-behind win against Republican challenger Matt Fong in a seesaw race for her Senate seat.
In four California congressional races Democratic incumbents faced tough Republican challengers, and all four held solid leads in late returns — indicating a possible anti-impeachment backlash at voting stations. Ellen Tauscher, Brad Sherman and Lois Capps held solid leads in late returns; and Loretta Sanchez won her ugly rematch with Rep. Bob (“En mi corazon, I’m Latino”) Dornan in Orange County.
Key Senate races
Washington state: Sneaker Mom vs. Christian Mom. Incumbent Democrat Patty Murray beat U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, a Christian right conservative backed by a cadre of die-hards known as “Linda’s Army.”
Illinois: Mud wrestling in the Land of Lincoln.Carol Moseley-Braun couldn’t pull off an upset of Republican challenger Peter Fitzgerald, despite Rappin’ Al Gore’s best efforts.
Congressional races: Did impeachment matter?
In suburban Seattle, Democratic challenger Jay Inslee was the first major candidate to use the impeachment issue against Republicans — a campaign inspiration he said came from voters, who were fed up with the Monica mess. He beat Republican incumbent Rick White.
Other races where impeachment was thought to matter (besides the California contests listed above) included several close contests where Republicans ran last-minute anti-Clinton attack ads. Those ads mostly failed: Democrats John Spratt of South Carolina, Sanford Bishop of Georgia and Bob Etheridge of North Carolina all won overwhelmingly. But Cincinnati’s Democratic Mayor Roxanne Qualls lost to Republican Steve Chabot.
Minnesota: Hubert Humphrey III thought Reform Party candidate Jesse (“The Body”) Ventura would siphon votes from Republican Norm Coleman. But Ventura rode a wave of populist exhilaration to defeat them both.
California: See above.
Weighing in on gay rights
It was a mostly disappointing night for gay rights backers. Voters in Alaska and Hawaii went for initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. But Fort Collins, Colo., and Fayetteville, Ark., defeated gay rights measures. And two of three lesbians running for Congress lost: California (Christine Kehoe) and Washington state (Grethe Cammemeyer).
Abortion: Late-term abortion bans on the ballot in Colorado and Washington state were defeated.
Affirmative action: Washington state passed the latest version of California’s Prop. 209, banning most affirmative action programs, 60 to 40 percent.
Animal rights: Animal rights: Voters banned horse meat in California, cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri, but refused to make hunting mourning doves in Ohio illegal.
Medical marijuana: Voters in Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, Arizona and Nevada approved measures to legalize medical marijuana.
Miscegenation:With two years to go, South Carolina joined the 20th century and legalized interracial marriage, 62 to 38 percent.
Tobacco tax: Foes called it the Meathead Initiative, and a California measure to raise cigarette taxes to pay for early childhood programs, promoted by actor/director Rob Reiner, is ahead by 20,000 votes.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
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