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Message of 1999: wild ride ahead

Mixed results in the off-year election portend competitive matchups in2000.

Around the United States, this week's off-year election results were mixed.

But as political activists of all stripes gear up for the big 2000 vote next November, there's a clear message for the parties.

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"The only lesson is, we are in a very competitive political environment nationally," says Stu Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter. "Anything can happen, depending on the candidates, on the personalities, on the campaigns, on the money."

Voter loyalty to political parties continues to decline and, increasingly, races are decided by how voters feel about the individual candidates and the issues they choose to highlight.

In general, pragmatism is in and strong ideology is out, especially as the nation enjoys peace and prosperity and the more moderate suburban vote grows in numbers. Does that mean next year's race for control of Congress - currently held narrowly by the GOP - will result again in a closely balanced mixed of Republicans and Democrats? Not necessarily. But it does mean the parties are going to have fight each race locally, and not count on any major national trend or message to carry along weak candidates, analysts say.

In the South, the long-developing Republican transformation has clearly stopped short of a full GOP rout. Republicans are celebrating their historic takeover of the Virginia legislature, where they will now hold a majority (albeit slim) for the first time in a century. But Democrats countered with a surprise in the Mississippi governor's race, where Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) appeared poised to defeat former Rep. Mike Parker (R).

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Paul Patton easily won reelection. But Mr. Musgrove's victory means Mississippi now joins South Carolina and Alabama as Deep South states whose governorships are once again Democratic.

"The South has reached a fairly level playing field between the two parties. At least right now, there's no built-in advantage for either party," says Hastings Wyman, Southern Political Report editor. "Much depends on what's going on in the state or the local area and how the campaigns are structured, and what the issues are and the candidates are."

View from the South

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That's how, in successive months, a Republican can win reelection to the governorship easily in Louisiana, while next door, in Mississippi, the statehouse is changing hands to the Democrats, says Mr. Wyman.

To the extent that Southern Republicans can tie candidates to liberal national Democratic figures like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Republicans still have an advantage in the South, analysts say.

"But it's a lot easier to do that in a federal race than in a local race where the Democrats now run as down-home Democrats," says Mr. Rothenberg.

In Mississippi, Musgrove appears set to take over from the term-limited Republican governor, Kirk Fordice. Analysts suggest that Mr. Fordice's messy personal life may have spurred voters to elect a Democrat, even though the Republican nominee, Mr. Parker, had nothing to do with it. At press time, Musgrove was ahead of Parker by about 6,000 votes. If neither man finishes with a majority, the Democratic-led state legislature will decide the race.

In the larger scheme of Southern politics, many factors that gave the GOP momentum in recent years have lessened in importance. The race issue has abated, the economy is glowing, and anger has diminished.

"You don't have a middle class afraid the Democrats will tax their money away in any significant way," Wyman says. "In foreign policy, there's no communist threat, no nationalism going on. All of these things were big factors in the Republican growth in the South. They're not there anymore."

In Virginia, where the state legislature has finally made its long-predicted switch to GOP control, the elections were run locally, but the result does have national significance: This new legislature will redraw the congressional districts based on the 2000 census, and that will mean at least two additional Republican seats in the US House of Representatives, says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A scare for Bush?

Mr. Sabato also notes a Virginia race that should give GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush "the willies." In a tight race for the state Senate, Leslie Byrne (D) defeated Jane Woods (R) by just 39 votes, with the help of an independent candidate who siphoned votes from Ms. Woods.

In mayoral votes around the country, the Democrats scored a string of victories, including a narrow win in Philadelphia. In Indianapolis, a Democrat will run the city for the first time in 30 years.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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