It wasn’t exactly a reversal of 1994, but in this year’s Senate races Democrats erased much of the Republican majority that was established in that year of Grand Old Party hegemony. Democrats picked up at least five and perhaps six Republican-held seats, while losing just two. In several cases, the shifts were dramatic, replacing staunch conservatives with far more progressive legislators.
For example, Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton, a liberal department store heir, displaced Republican incumbent Rod Grams, a conservative hundred-percenter famous for dismissing Senator Paul Wellstone’s attempt to lodge a criticism of Chinese human rights abuses as “demagoguery.” Missouri Republican John Ashcroft, perhaps the Senate’s most outspoken advocate of the Christian-right agenda, will be replaced by Jean Carnahan, the widow of liberal Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan (although the threat of a legal challenge remains). Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a House member whose strong labor record won her passionate support from the powerful United Auto Workers union, beat Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham, a former aide to Dan Quayle who frequently zeroed out on labor’s voting-record ratings. One immediate change could come in the area of campaign finance reform: Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin says he now believes there will be sufficient support in the Senate to get the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill passed. “The question now is whether we’ll have a Democratic President, who will sign the bill, or a Republican, who will veto it,” says Feingold.
Perhaps the biggest Senate disappointment of the night was the 51-to-48 loss of Brian Schweitzer, a Montana rancher who used his campaign to dramatize the high cost of drugs for seniors and in the final weeks closed the gap on antienvironment, antilabor incumbent Conrad Burns.
There was even more disappointment in the results in the House, where an expensive two-year Democratic drive to win the seven Republican seats needed to take back the House failed. While Clinton impeachment manager Jim Rogan went down in California, and Arkansas’s Jay Dickey may have been beaten in part because of his support for removing the state’s number-one homeboy, most targeted Republican incumbents withstood the challenge. At least one Democrat with a good record, Connecticut’s Sam Gejdenson–a consistent liberal with a strong international affairs bent–was ousted, and several progressive newcomers, including California’s Gerrie Schipske and Montana’s Nancy Keenan, have been beaten. But Illinois’s Lane Evans beat back a meanspirited Republican challenge, and new California Representative Mike Honda won with strong backing from labor, as did New York’s Steve Israel, who won the Long Island seat vacated by Republican Rick Lazio–the man First Lady Hillary Clinton bested in the nation’s highest-profile Senate contest.
At the state level, the nastiest fight was in Vermont. There, in a campaign that turned into a referendum on the question of whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed the rights of heterosexual couples, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who signed the state’s groundbreaking yet controversial “civil union” law, won a decisive victory in his campaign for a fifth term as governor. Vermont Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina surprised observers by racking up 10 percent of the vote and helping elect several Progressive Party candidates to legislative seats.
North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s progressive populist attorney general, lost a race for the governorship. But Delaware Lieutenant Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who dropped out of high school at 16 to work on the family farm and returned to school after being widowed at age 32, was elected governor. Her win means there will now be five women governors–the highest number in history.
A key result of the elections at the state level will be their impact on redistricting, which will shape Congress for years to come. Democrats now control forty-nine state legislative houses of a total of ninety-eight, while Republicans control forty-five. Four legislative chambers are evenly tied. Democrats won control of the Colorado Senate and the Washington Statehouse Tuesday. But they lost the Vermont House, with thirteen incumbents being swept from office. “It was all the civil-union fight,” says Kevin Mack of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Howard Dean won up there, but a lot of good Democrats lost on the issue.”