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The Voters Speak

Any evaluation of Tuesday's election results should keep in mind several key facts. Despite some surprises, it was a status-quo vote. Of 401 House incumbents, all but six won reelection. While the Democrats gained a handful of seats, Republicans still control Congress, the first time in 70 years they have won the House three times in a row. Bill Clinton is still president, and he still has a veto.

The GOP also maintained its dominance in governorships. But Democrats increased the number of seats they hold in state legislatures. And while Republican Jeb Bush picked off the Florida governorship, the GOP lost the big one in California. That's important on the national level because whoever controls a statehouse controls that state's congressional redistricting after the 2000 census.

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Turnout was as important as predicted. Democrats worked intensely to get labor and black voters to the polls, and it worked. Republicans in too many races didn't do enough to reach out beyond social conservatives. Exit polling shows voters were interested in bread-and-butter issues, especially education, and not in the Lewinsky affair, something that has been clear for weeks to anyone who cared to listen. The Republican leadership's decision to run a series of scandal-related ads the last few days before the vote was a serious miscalculation: It not only raised yawns from many, it helped motivate Democrats to show up at the polls.

The results leave House GOP leaders with even less room to maneuver than they have had during the past two years. To accomplish anything, they will have to return to the bipartisanship of 1997, when they reached a historic balanced-budget deal with the White House. They will have to reach out to conservative and moderate Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis to build the coalitions needed to pass legislation.

Republicans blew a big opportunity to make serious gains. Like a football team leading in the fourth quarter, they kept throwing unnecessary interceptions. They couldn't agree on a budget or a tax cut and didn't get the annual spending bills passed on time. That handed President Clinton a huge amount of leverage, which he used to extract billions in new spending. Social conservatives in the House insisted on passing bills not even many Senate Republicans could support.

The GOP left town in disarray without a coherent message to sell - unlike Democrats, who were focused and united, admittedly always easier for the party out of power. Republicans often gave the impression they thought they could coast to victory. They made a serious mistake in leaving the door open for Democrats to claim, wrongly in most cases, that the GOP is obsessed with impeachment and investigation.

The split in GOP ranks will continue to be a problem. While Speaker Newt Gingrich's position doesn't appear to be in danger, the recriminations and back-biting have already begun. Moderates and pragmatists will insist on coalition-building, but hard-core conservatives will assert that even harder-core conservatism is the answer to winning over voters.

Some winners Tuesday: Moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, and black Democrats, who will all wield more power in their respective House caucuses. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, whose masterful ability to block Republican initiatives escapes unscathed. Democrats in general, who are better positioned for congressional races in 2000 than many thought they would be - just a few seats from control of the House and with more Republican than Democratic senators up for reelection.

Other big winners: Republican governors, who ran on their records and showed they could govern on pragmatic conservative principles - including tax cuts - and still attract women and minority voters. George W. Bush, who cemented his front-runner position in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. The president, who raised big money for his party and who gains strength versus those who would impeach. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who campaigned hard for Democrats, piling up valuable chits for the future.

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Voters spoke on several issues in state referendums, which are developing as a serious challenge to representative democracy. In four states they unwisely endorsed the medical use of marijuana, a phony issue used by those who would legalize pot altogether. The federal government will block implementation, but must develop a more sophisticated response.

Alaskans and Hawaiians made it clear they do not sanction gay marriage. Affirmative action suffered another setback in Washington State, where voters rejected state use of racial and gender preferences. Californians undid the state's attempt to increase its clout in the primaries by refusing to hold a closed primary in accord with both parties' rules.

Oregonians made a serious mistake in deciding all future elections will be by mail. Vote fraud is an increasing problem; total absentee voting could well make it worse.

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