Virginians, faced with what many voters regarded as a choice between bad and worse, said no to Republican Oliver L. North on Tuesday and allowed Democrat Charles S. Robb to keep his Senate seat despite a lackluster first term and sullied personal reputation.
With 99% of the vote counted, the incumbent led North 46% to 43%. Republican J. Marshall Coleman, running as an independent, had 11% of the vote.
On a night when many Democrats nationally went down to defeat, the outcome in Virginia was both an important victory for Robb’s party and an ironic anomaly for a candidate with such vulnerabilities.
“It was hold your nose and vote for the one who you dislike less,” said John McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary. “Stick that clothespin on and pull the lever.”
The race was neck and neck until the last days of the campaign, when former First Lady Nancy Reagan denounced North as a liar and the candidate blundered by attacking Social Security during an appearance at a nursing home.
Key to Robb’s success was the turnout of African American voters, whose support of Robb soared after his longtime Democratic nemesis, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, stopped attacking him and started campaigning for him during the last weeks of the contest.
“Doug Wilder has finally delivered for him,” said political scientist Mark Rozell of Virginia’s Mary Washington College. “But a Robb victory does not change his scandalous past. More than anything else, I see the results as a rejection of Oliver North. Robb could not have won reelection without opposing a controversial, scandal-tainted nominee like Mr. North.”
Most Virginians were unenthusiastic--or worse--about both the candidates put forward by the major political parties.
North, this year’s most controversial symbol of the anti-Establishment politician, had sought a niche in history as the first person to be elected to Congress in spite of a conviction for lying to it.
As an aide to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, North ran the illegal Iran-Contra operation and was convicted of shredding classified documents, accepting illegal gratuities and lying to congressional investigating committees. Those convictions were later overturned on a technicality.
Robb, once a highly regarded governor, tarnished his reputation through admitted extramarital dalliances and other morally questionable behavior. After Virginians gave him 71% of the vote last time around, their affection for the son-in-law of former President Lyndon B. Johnson dwindled steadily.
“These are the two most unpopular party nominees in this state’s history,” said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. “It’s an embarrassment. Virginia is very sensitive about it.”
Voters expressed precisely the same sentiments. “Robb’s the lesser of two evils,” said Monika Talwar, 24, an information specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I think Robb’s a sleaze. The stories about his character concerned me. But I’m more concerned in seeing North defeated. Basically, I’m strongly anti-North, and I thought this was one election where my vote could make a difference.”
“I don’t like the choice,” said Larry Pulliam, who wore his Air Force uniform to his northern Virginia polling place. “One guy was convicted for Iran-Contra, the other was seen at drug parties when he was governor. “If there were a none-of-the-above, I’d probably vote for him.”
Rozell called the result a rejection of North rather than an endorsement of Robb. “Robb was the devil they knew,” Rozell said, “but Oliver North was just too dangerous for most Virginia voters.”
An elated Robb greeted his supporters at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in this Washington suburb Tuesday night with a throaty: “How sweet it is!”
After thanking abortion-rights groups, gay and lesbian organizations and African American groups for their support, Robb said: “This election was a very important message to the nation. Virginia will continue to be inclusive. Virginia will continue to be tolerant rather than intolerant.”
While candidates across the nation--Democrats and Republicans alike--tried to distance themselves from President Clinton during the campaign, Robb sought his help--and thanked him in his acceptance speech.
“I am proud to stand with our President,” Robb said to the crowd, which roared loudly enough to drown out the rest of his statement.
North, appearing in a Richmond convention hall to concede defeat, pointedly offered no congratulations to Robb. Acknowledging that he felt “hurt” by the results, he told his supporters: “My loss is not your defeat if you will persevere.”
North had been forced to campaign in the teeth of opposition from some prominent Republicans. Ronald Reagan expressed his indignation at North’s campaign in a letter published early in the election season. And just 10 days before the election, Nancy Reagan denounced the man who had once worked for her husband.
“I know Ollie North has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy,” she said. “And he lied to my husband and lied about my husband.”
“The attack from Nancy Reagan really did hurt him, mostly among Republicans and especially Republican women,” Sabato said.
Within the state, John W. Warner, Virginia’s senior senator and longest-serving GOP officeholder, led the Republican opposition to North. He argued that even though North’s 1989 conviction in the Iran-Contra scandal was overturned, it made him “unfit” for public service.
The denunciations by the Reagans and Warner helped doom North, even though he was endorsed by former Vice President Dan Quayle and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), arguably the most influential Republican of them all.
While North received widespread kudos for an aggressive, effective campaign, he sabotaged himself, according to Virginia political analysts, by suggesting at a senior citizens home near Roanoke that, in the future, workers should be able to opt out of paying Social Security.
The North campaign’s greatest success was raising more money--$17.6 million--than any other Senate campaign this year, most of it from out of state. Only multimillionaire Rep. Mike Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) spent more--$28 million--but nearly all of that was his own money. Robb, by contrast, raised $4.5 million.
North drew much of his support from the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups, which turned the state into a battleground for the clash of liberal and conservative visions of the future and the race into a referendum on Clinton’s presidency.
“The Christian Coalition was extremely influential in this race,” Sabato said. “North could not have been nominated . . . or elected without them. They were his bedrock base.”
A sizable chunk of Robb’s treasury came from a fund-raiser where the guest of honor was the President. Clinton was conspicuously absent from all other major campaigns in the South.
But Clinton did not threaten Robb’s chances the way he did other Democrats because “the President’s approval rating is higher than North’s or Robb’s,” McGlennon said. Polls consistently showed both men with negative ratings of greater than 50%.
“The President’s rising popularity helped Robb keep in the race. If the President’s approval rating were lower than this, Robb would have been out of it,” McGlennon added.