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Democrats Buck GOP Tide, Boost Margins in Congress

Times Staff Writers

Bucking a strong GOP tide in the presidential election, Democrats on Tuesday ousted two incumbent Republican senators and apparently strengthened their Senate majority--a gain that could lead to stalemate between the 101st Congress and President-elect George Bush.

And in the House, Democrats also appeared to have achieved a slight increase in their already substantial majority. According to NBC News, Democrats gained two new seats in the House, giving them a 259-176 margin over the GOP.

Even in many states where Bush won overwhelmingly, ticket-splitting by voters allowed Democratic congressional candidates to survive--depriving Bush of the Republican sweep similar to the one in 1980 when Ronald Reagan’s coattails carried the GOP to victory in the Senate.

A key upset occurred in Connecticut, where Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a liberal Republican maverick and 18-year-veteran, was unseated by a conservative, law-and-order Democrat.

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In the House, the major casualty was a Democrat, House Banking Committee Chairman Fernand J. St Germain of Rhode Island, who was accused of taking vacation trips paid by savings-and-loan officials.

It was apparently the first time since John F. Kennedy in 1960 that a new President had been elected without bolstering his party’s margin in Congress. And it demonstrated what Assistant Senate Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) described as “the good ol’ perversity of the American public.”

In the Senate, where Democrats held a 54-46 majority in the 100th Congress, they gained seats in Connecticut, Nebraska and Virginia. They lost a seat in Mississippi and were fearful that incumbent John Melcher would lose in Montana.

In California, according to projections by ABC News, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson survived a closer-than-expected challenge from Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy.

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Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) predicted that the Democratic gains would make it difficult for Bush to govern.

‘Going to Spell Trouble’

“He needed more Republicans in the Senate, not less, and that’s going to spell trouble almost from Day One for George Bush,” Dole said.

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’s standard-bearer.

Dole, who lost the GOP presidential nomination to Bush, suggested that the vice president contributed to the strong Democratic congressional showing by failing to campaign vigorously for Republican Senate candidates.

Weicker, a husky multimillionaire with a rhetorical flair, was upset by state Atty. Gen. Joseph I. Lieberman. The result was so close, however, that a recount was expected.

Weicker has been one of the Senate’s most vocal advocates of civil rights and, as a member of the Senate Watergate investigating committee more than a decade ago, was one of the first Republicans to call for the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Loss in Nebraska

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In addition, Sen. David Karnes (R-Neb.), a 39-year-old political neophyte who was appointed to the Senate last year to replace the late Democrat Ed Zorinsky, lost his first bid for election to the popular former Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, who is best known nationally for his brief romance with actress Debra Winger.

Although most House incumbents were reelected, Rep. Pat Swindall (R-Ga.) lost to Democratic challenger Ben Jones, an actor who appeared in the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series. Swindall, who was indicted on perjury charges in the closing weeks of the campaign, accused Jones of being a drunk and a wife-beater.

St Germain, who was seeking his 15th term, was defeated by almost 10 percentage points in his race against a political novice, Ronald K. Machtley. While Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) is next in seniority to be chairman of the Banking committee, his reputation as a maverick may deprive him of the job when Democrats choose committee chairmen next month.

Of the six Senate races in which there was no incumbent running, three were previously held by Republicans and three by Democrats. The Democrats managed to hold on to the seat in Wisconsin and gained a seat in Virginia, but lost the seat in Mississippi that had been held for more than 40 years by retiring Sen. John C. Stennis.

Robb Wins in Virginia

In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb, the son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson who frequently has been mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential nominee in 1992, was chosen to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.).

At the same time, Democrat Herbert Kohl, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, won the seat of retiring Democrat William Proxmire in Wisconsin. And in a seesaw race, Rep. Buddy MacKay (D-Fla.) appeared to be leading in his quest to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Lawton Chiles.

In Mississippi, House Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott, a conservative, was elected to the Senate by defeating Rep. Wayne Dowdy, a liberal Democrat. And Republican Rep. James M. Jeffords of Vermont was elected to fill a Senate seat being vacated by another Republican.

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In Washington state, Democratic Rep. Mike Lowry and former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton were competing for a seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Daniel J. Evans.

Among incumbents seeking reelection, three Democrats, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and Quentin M. Burdick of North Dakota, fought off tough Republican challenges.

Nasty Senate Contest

The New Jersey race was perhaps the nastiest Senate contest. Both Lautenberg and his opponent, 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.”

In Ohio, Metzenbaum survived an assault by Cleveland’s Republican mayor, George V. Voinovich, whose campaign took a nose-dive after he accused the incumbent of being soft on child pornogrpahy. The Republicans had viewed Metzenbaum, a liberal, as particularly vulnerable in a state where Bush was extremely popular.

Burdick’s GOP challenger relied upon an endorsement from Reagan, who at the age of 77 made anti-Burdick television commercials saying he was looking forward to passing his office to a younger man, implying Burdick should do the same. Burdick is 80 years old.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, won reelection--even though the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket was defeated in Texas--thanks to a state law allowing him to run for both offices simultaneously.

Other Democratic incumbents who won reelection were Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii, George J. Mitchell of Maine, Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Jim Sasser of Tennessee and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. On the Republican side, Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota won a hard-fought race against Hubert H. (Skip) Humphrey III, son of the former vice president.

Republican Incumbents

Other Republican incumbents who gained reelection were William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, John C. Danforth of Missouri, John Heinz of Pennsylvania, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah. Of the incumbent senators seeking reelection, 15 were Democrats and 12 Republicans. In the House, 24 members did not seek reelection, and most of the close contests were for the 27 open seats.

In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Roy Dyson of Maryland narrowly defeated a virtual unknown, Republican Wayne Gilchrest, following reports that Dyson had benefited from dealings with defense contractors he met as a member of the House Armed Services committee. Dyson also received unfavorable publicity when his chief of staff killed himself by leaping from a New York hotel last spring.

Many of the House and Senate races were as hard fought as the presidential contest.

Spending Figures

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.

Blacks gained one new seat in the House, where they already hold 22. That was in New Jersey, where Newark councilman Donald Payne was elected to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr.


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