Democrats return to fold, deliver Senate to party. But Nov. 4 results give GOP several reasons not to despair
Rejuvenated Democrats, buoyed by votes from the South and West, now proclaim that ``the Reagan Revolution is over.'' The extraordinary Democratic near-sweep of United States Senate seats, giving the party a 55-to-45 majority, stunned the Reagan White House and pointed the way toward further Democratic gains in the future.
Republican grief over Election '86 was slightly assuaged by the gain of eight governorships, and by the scant loss of seven seats in the US House of Representatives. But the setback in the Senate overshadowed everything else for the moment.
Democrats are already looking ahead to 1988, when they hope their new momentum will carry them back into the White House.
Millions of traditional Democrats who lined up behind Ronald Reagan in 1984 returned to the party fold. Democratic gains in the South were especially impressive. Fresh money and talent will now flow into the party.
The youth vote, which Mr. Reagan captured resoundingly in 1984, slipped back into the Democratic column. So did independent voters, who had been drifting away from Democrats in growing numbers since 1980.
Women, reviving talk of a gender gap, rallied around Democratic candidates. In a number of states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Nevada, women provided the winning margin for Democratic Senate candidates. ABC-TV exit polls showed that men in those states voted Republican. Republican losses in the Senate might have been cut in half without the female vote.
George J. Mitchell of Maine, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, says that ``good candidates and good issues'' were responsible for Tuesday's victories, which he says mark the end of President Reagan's domination in Washington.
Senator Mitchell could be right about Reagan's diminished clout. In Florida, for example, ABC exit polls found that 40 percent of the people who voted for Reagan in 1984 cast their ballots this week for the Democratic Senate candidate, Bob Graham. Nationwide, 33 percent of the Reagan voters backed Democratic congressional candidates.
Those were disappointing results for the President, who had campaigned from coast to coast since Labor Day and raised $33 million for Republican Senate candidates.
Yet various analysts warn against reading too much into Tuesday's returns. Network exit polls show the President's popularity between 60 and 70 percent - a historic high. Veteran pundit Horace Busby, who served as secretary to the Cabinet in the Johnson White House, says that ``the country is no more liberal today than it was a week ago when we had a Republican Senate.''
Mr. Busby, like a number of other analysts, says the election was ``a whopping victory'' for Democrats, but it should not be exaggerated. He says the election turned on three factors: (1)personalities, (2)local issues, and (3)mishandling by the White House.
Busby says the first lesson of this election was: ``Good Republican money could not save bad Republican candidates.''
Most of the defeated Republican senators took office in 1980, when they were swept into office with President Reagan. Many of them were ``little known and out of step'' with their states, Busby says. When voters were offered attractive Democratic alternatives, like Governor Graham in Florida and Tom Daschle in South Dakota, they grabbed it.
An ABC analyst, looking at the results of nearly 43,000 exit interviews with voters, says the collapse in Republican strength occurred among young and independent voters. There were no national issues to excite them.
Without national issues, ``personality was the driver'' in races like Florida, Missouri, and Washington. And in most places, the Democrats had more-attractive candidates, the analyst says. A CBS survey found many voters simply looking for ``honesty.''
Local issues also were pivotal, in the absence of a national agenda. Farm problems, crime, and illegal drugs often loomed larger than arms control and relations with the Soviets.
Analysts were also critical of the White House - particularly on the issues of budget deficits and trade. During recent months, voters had grown apprehensive about their economic futures. Democrats were able to exploit this. The White House, which moved slowly on trade and undercut a Senate effort to deal with the deficit, underestimated public concern, analysts say. From a political perspective, the White House needed a tough trade law and a deficit-cutting bill this year, not a new tax bill, analysts say.
A tough new trade measure, in fact, could be one of the first acts of the new, Democratic 100th Congress. Senator Mitchell promises such a bill will have top priority. The Democratic victory pleased some embattled US industries. Dewey Trogdon, president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, a trade group, said, ``The outlook for effective textile trade legislation has improved.''
Trading nations such as Japan, Brazil, and Korea could come under quick pressure in 1987 to open their markets to more US goods.
While there will be a great temptation to paint this election as a disaster for Republicans, it is notable that there were so many close races (the North Dakota Senate contest, for example, still has not been officially settled), that it could all have easily gone the other way.
Nearly complete returns show that with the switch of fewer than 27,000 votes in five states - Alabama, Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Dakota - the Senate would still be in Republican hands (a 50-50 split, with Vice-President George Bush the deciding vote). A switch of 11,000 votes in Georgia would have made it 51 to 49 Republican - something for Republicans to ponder during the long winter months.