Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, an 18-year veteran and a leading spokesman for civil rights, was upset by a conservative law-and-order Democrat on Tuesday--a surprise reversal that was expected to help the Democrats retain their majority in Congress despite an apparent GOP tide in the presidential election.
In many states where Republican presidential candidate George Bush appeared to be winning by a wide margin, it appeared that ticket-splitting by the voters would enable the Democrats to preserve--and perhaps even expand--their 54-46 majority in Senate and their 255-177 edge in the House, where there are three vacancies.
Democrats picked up Senate seats in Virginia and Nebraska also, but, according to network projections, lost one in Mississippi.
The trend in early returns was a disappointment to Republicans, who had hoped that Bush could lead the GOP to an election-year sweep similar to the one in 1980, when the party, riding on Ronald Reagan’s coattails, grabbed control of the Senate and gained 33 seats in the House.
Although a Reagan-style sweep is rare, the presidential victor often helps bolster his party’s strength in Congress.
Kennedy Victory Cited
The last time a new President was elected without his party’s picking up seats in Congress was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy won but the Democrats lost 20 seats in the House and picked up only one in the Senate.
Although Weicker’s defeat was a surprise setback for the Republican Party, it was no measure of Bush’s potential coattails in other states.
Unlike Bush, Weicker is a maverick liberal in his party. The upset victor, state Atty. Gen. Joseph I. Lieberman, is a conservative with a reputation for being tough on criminals.
Weicker, a lanky, multimillionaire with a rhetorical flair, has been one of the Senate’s leading advocates of civil rights, sanctions against South Africa and strict adherence to the controversial 1973 War Powers Resolution. More than a decade ago, as a member of the Senate Watergate investigating committee, he was one of the first Republicans to call for the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
In pivotal states such as Florida, Nevada and Montana, where Bush has been leading throughout the campaign, Republican congressional candidates sought to gain the advantage by identifying themselves with the GOP presidential candidate and linking their opponent with Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis. But most Democrats under attack simply disavowed the unpopular positions of their party standard-bearer.
Robb Wins in Virginia
In other early returns, former Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia was elected to a Senate seat previously held by a Republican. And the Democrats took a Nebraska Senate seat from the Republicans when former Gov. Robert Kerrey ousted incumbent David K. Karnes, who had been appointed to fill a vacancy.
In Mississippi, however, an open Senate seat seems likely to switch from Democratic to Republican. Rep. Trent Lott appeared to be winning the seat held for more than 40 years by Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis.
In Vermont, Republican Rep. James M. Jeffords was elected to fill a Senate seat being vacated by another Republican. And, in Wisconsin, Democrat Herbert Kohl, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, won the seat of retiring Democrat William Proxmire.
Robb, son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson and a conservative who has frequently been mentioned as a possible Democrat presidential nominee in 1992, was chosen to replace Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) and fill one of six Senate seats from which incumbents are retiring--three of them currently held by Republicans and three by Democrats.
The other open Senate seats were in Florida, Wisconsin and Washington.
Two incumbent Democratic senators--Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Quentin N. Burdick of North Dakota--survived strong Republican challenges.
Burdick, who is 80, won a tough campaign in which his GOP challenger relied on an endorsement from Reagan, who at age 77 made anti-Burdick television commercials saying that he was looking forward to passing his office to a younger man.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, was reelected to the Senate, thanks to a state law allowing him to run for both offices at once.
Other Democratic incumbents easily reelected included Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, George J. Mitchell of Maine, Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan and Jim Sasser of Tennessee.
Successful Republican incumbents included Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, John C. Danforth of Missouri and John Heinz of Pennsylvania.
Of the incumbent senators seeking reelection, 15 were Democrats and 12 Republicans. But all three incumbents facing the most serious challenges were Republicans--Weicker, Karnes of Nebraska and Chic Hecht of Nevada.
In the House, 24 members did not seek reelection, and most of the close contests were for the 27 open seats.
Vermont voters provided a surprise in the race for the state’s single House seat by giving an early lead to a Socialist candidate, Burlington Mayor Bernard Sanders, who was running as an independent. He led both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the seat in the first returns.
In 1986, more than 98% of House incumbents seeking another term were successful, a tribute to the fund-raising power of House members and the fact that their name recognition is higher than that of most challengers.
Many of the House and Senate races were as hard fought as the presidential contest.
As of Oct. 19, major party candidates spent more than $150 million in the 33 Senate contests this year and more than $207 million in the 435 House races--a new record for spending in both instances.
Political action committees contributed more than $125 million to the financing of House and Senate campaigns.
Many of the congressional campaigns were even more negative than the Bush-Dukakis contest.
In New Jersey, for example, incumbent Democrat Lautenberg and his challenger, Pete Dawkins, ran television commercials viciously attacking each other. Dawkins finally forswore negative ads after running one charging that Lautenberg would do anything to be reelected “as long as he can make some money on the side.”
Blacks were expected to gain one new seat in the House, where they already held 22. In New Jersey, both candidates seeking to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. are black. The Democrat, Newark Councilman Donald Payne, was favored over Republican Michael Webb.
Among the women candidates seeking election to the House for the first time were Democrats Jolene Unsoeld of Washington, Rosemary Pooler in New York and Anna G. Eshoo of California. But at least one of the House’s 23 women incumbents, Rep. Elizabeth J. Patterson of South Carolina, was believed to be in jeopardy of losing her seat.