With the midterm elections only six days away, the brightening outlook for gubernatorial and black congressional incumbents seems to be turning the pundits’ conventional wisdom about trouble for current officeholders on its head.
Both of former President George Bush’s sons, who were poised for upsets over incumbents a few weeks ago, appear to be yielding ground in their gubernatorial bids in Texas and Florida.
And a survey of polls from around the country Wednesday suggested that more than a dozen governors and every black Democrat running for reelection in Congress are on their way to easy victories.
Only one truism was consistently being proven. In the final hours, candidates in both parties unleashed an array of negative ads that were strikingly harsh, even in a campaign season noted for contentiousness.
The bad news for the Bush brothers came in two forms. In Texas, where George W. Bush is challenging Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, a new poll released Wednesday revealed that Richards had climbed into a slight lead by last weekend, even before former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot endorsed her Tuesday. Experts said the Perot endorsement, one of the few he has given to a Democrat this year, could mean a further boost.
The poll, by the Houston Post and KHOU-TV in Houston, found Richards leading, 47% to 44%. She was gaining particularly among previously undecided voters.
Things were also looking up for Democratic Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who was receiving positive press reviews Wednesday after his latest debate with real estate magnate Jeb Bush, the former President’s younger son.
The Miami Herald said Chiles had put on his best performance while putting his opponent on the defensive in the debate, particularly when the governor criticized the young Republican for an ad that featured the mother of a murder victim who accuses Chiles of being too soft on crime.
Chiles, calling the ad demagoguery, likened it to the notorious Willie Horton ad that helped Bush’s father win the 1988 presidential election.
When Bush accused Chiles of being an “old liberal,” Chiles answered with a Southern aphorism that seemed to befuddle the Texas-bred Republican. “The old-he-coon walks just before the light of day,” Chiles said, a suggestion that the toughest raccoon best protects his brood from predators. Bush turned his palms up and offered an expression of mystification.
Bush appeared to be running away with the campaign a few weeks ago but has slowly lost ground, and the race now generally is viewed as a dead heat.
In other governors’ races, a review of polls shows that six Democrats and seven Republicans appear to be coasting to reelection victories.
The Republican count includes five Midwesterners--George V. Voinovich in Ohio, Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin, Jim Edgar in Illinois, Arne Carlson in Minnesota and John Engler in Michigan--and two New Englanders, William F. Weld in Massachusetts and Steve Merrill in New Hampshire.
The Democratic governors who appear virtually assured of reelection include Roy Romer in Colorado, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Robert Miller in Nevada, Jim Guy Tucker in Arkansas, Jim Folsom in Alabama and Howard Dean in Vermont.
Overall, there are 21 incumbent governors up for reelection, and in most of the races where the sitting executives are not clearly ahead, the races are too close to call. In New York, however, a new poll Wednesday showed New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo ahead of George Pataki, his Republican opponent, by 15 percentage points. A week ago, Cuomo was trailing in the polls.
In Congress, polls indicate that every black Democratic incumbent standing for reelection should win. That is partly a reflection of the 1992 redistricting that was designed to encourage more minority representation in Congress by creating safer minority seats.
Currently, there are 38 black members of the House (two lost in primaries, one is Republican and one is now running for the Senate).
Indeed, the only black House incumbent who has a close race, according to polls, is a Republican, Gary Franks of Connecticut, who is running against Democrat James Maloney.
This week has also seen what even Democrats are calling the most vicious negative ad of the season. Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey has a new ad that attacks Republican opponent Chuck Haytaian because of the people who support him.
“Pro-Life extremists. The national gun lobby. A racist (radio talk show host). They’re all supporting Chuck Haytaian,” a throaty narrator says over a soundtrack of frightening music. “Should you?”
Lautenberg is ahead in the polls.