After back-to-back election triumphs, Republicans failed Tuesday in bids to seize control of the Kentucky governor’s office and legislatures in Virginia and Maine. A GOP bright spot was in Mississippi, where Gov. Kirk Fordice easily won a second term.
Emboldened by historic gains in 1993 and 1994, Republicans had hoped to show the party’s revival would spread this year to state and local contests long dominated by Democrats. But any GOP hopes for another sweep were quickly dashed in Kentucky, and followed by several additional disappointments.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Paul Patton fought back a tough challenge from businessman Larry Forgy in Kentucky’s governor’s race, extending his party’s 24-year grip on that office. Democrats also coasted in five other statewide contests there. Despite the close margin, Patton suggested the results offered a message to the Republican Congress.
“This will be remembered as the day that Kentucky stood tall,” Patton said. “Kentucky has said ‘no’ to Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.”
The GOP fared much better in Mississippi, where Fordice handily beat Democrat Dick Molpus, a three-term secretary of state. With 92 percent of the vote in, Fordice had 55 percent to 45 percent for Molpus.
Republicans have never controlled either chamber of the Virginia Legislature, and entered the day believing history was within reach. But Democrats held their 52-47 House majority. Republicans did gain two state Senate seats, leaving the 40-member chamber equally divided, although Republicans held out hope of convincing a conservative Democrat to switch parties. The Democratic lieutenant governor would break any tie votes.
In Maine, Democrats had temporarily lost control of the House earlier this year because of party switches, but they reclaimed a one-vote majority by winning two special elections.
Republicans hoped a big Fordice win would mean legislative gains in Mississippi as well, but they did not appear to be gaining enough seats to capture the state Senate. Democrats made only a tiny dent in the GOP’s lopsided majority in New Jersey’s Assembly.
Dozens of communities elected mayors. Big-city incumbents who won easily included Kurt Schmoke in Baltimore, Edward Rendell in Philadelphia and Bob Lanier in Houston. In Gary, Ind., where 90 percent of the population is black, Scott King was elected the first white mayor since 1967.
San Francisco’s colorful three-way contest pitted incumbent Frank Jordan against a California political legend, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and a prominent lesbian activist, former Clinton administration official Roberta Achtenberg.
With only absentee ballots reported, Jordan led with 14,863 votes, or just over 48 percent; Brown had 8,535 votes; Achtenberg had 4,499, and five other candidates divided the remainder. If no candidate got more than 50 percent, a runoff would be held next month.
As always, ballots were crowded with propositions. Two Indiana counties rejected riverboat gambling, and residents of Springfield, Mass., said they did not want casinos. A Maine proposal to prohibit laws aimed at protecting homosexuals from discrimination was defeated.
After two years of Republican boasting, Democrats were sure to claim bragging rights.
But even in victory, there were signs of Democratic distress. Patton distanced himself from Clinton and, in a big tobacco state, vowed not to support him in 1996 if the president kept pushing curbs on smoking.
Hoping to tie Patton to the unpopular president, businessman Forgy ran an ad comparing Patton to the “liberal” Clinton - and for good measure included a photograph of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
But with 99 percent of the vote tallied, Patton had 498,805, or 51 percent, to Forgy’s 476,296, or 49 percent.
In Mississippi, Fordice, the state’s first Republican governor since 1876, boasted of a booming economy and promised to cut income taxes. Molpus said his plan to halve the state’s 7 percent grocery sales tax was a better deal for lower- and middle-income families. He also accused Fordice of ignoring problems in the state’s public schools.
A late Molpus radio ad targeting black voters said a Fordice re-election meant “You go to the back of the bus.” Fordice accused Molpus of race-baiting.
Republicans still remain confident of winning Louisiana’s gubernatorial race, which will be settled in a runoff.
The attention in Washington was on the gubernatorial and legislative elections. In 1993, off-year contests offered the first evidence of the Republican revival, and both parties watched for clues to the climate in the coming presidential year.
“Unquestionably, we still have the wind at our backs,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour.
Still, mindful of the deep Democratic traditions in local Southern politics, he said: “At some point we won’t win every election.”
As for national implications, the White House took a wait-and-see posture. “If Democrats win everywhere…I’m sure it will be a very dramatic and national trend,” Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry joked.<
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