GOP mends some damage in governorships


WASHINGTON -- A string of last-minute GOP successes in Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts and the year's highest-stakes

contest in California revived Republican fortunes in gubernatorial races, easing damage done by two key losses in Florida and Texas.

California Republican Pete Wilson's decisive victory over forme San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein handed the GOP control of California's important governorship -- and stopped Democrats, who had earlier scored gains in Texas and Florida, from a sweep of the three most coveted governors' chairs.

Overall, Democrats seized control of governorships in seve states -- compared with GOP gains in five states.

But Democrats showed no net pickup of seats, since independent candidates in Connecticut and Alaska will replace two retiring Democratic governors.

Four Republican incumbents -- Bob Martinez of Florida, Mike Hayden of Kansas, Edward D. DiPrete of Rhode Island and Kay A. Orr of Nebraska -- were swept out of office in an early tide of Democratic victories.

Democratic incumbents James J. Blanchard of Michigan and Rudy Perpich of Minnesota suffered losses in two of the year's biggest upsets.

Overall, 17 of 23 incumbents running in 36 races nationwide maintained their hold on office.

Former state Treasurer Joan Finney's upset in Kansas may have been the Democrats' most stunning gain, but the party's sweetest triumph was in Texas, where state Treasurer Ann Richards beat millionaire rancher Clayton Williams with 52 percent of the vote to end one of the year's roughest political brawls.

This victory reflects "the power of people, not the power of money," Ms. Richards told a cheering crowd in Austin.

Control of governors' mansions in Texas and Florida should give Democrats an edge next year when the states redraw their congressional boundaries to reflect the latest census figures. Florida and Texas could each gain up to four congressional seats.

Still, Mr. Wilson's victory in California promises to give the GOP a similar edge in California, which is expected to land at least seven new congressional seats.

"The critical factor will be who controls the state legislatures and the governorships," said Thad Beyle, a specialist in gubernatorial politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One of the night's biggest surprises came in Massachusetts, where the state's traditionally Democratic voters chose moderate Republican William Weld over the outspoken conservative Democrat John Silber. Mr. Weld will step into the seat vacated by former presidential hopeful Michael S. Dukakis.

The GOP also scored unexpected gains in Ohio and Vermont and breathed a heavy sigh of relief in Illinois, where Secretary of State Jim Edgar edged out state Attorney General Neil Hartigan, and in Maine, where embattled Gov. John R. McKernan held on in a narrow race against former Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan.

Despite pre-election speculation that abortion-rights gubernatorial candidates might carry the day, Tuesday's results show no such pattern.

In Texas and Florida, where abortion emerged as a pivotal issue, an abortion-rights stand did appear to help Ms. Richards and former Sen. Lawton Chiles.

Abortion- rights candidates were also elected in Georgia and Rhode Island.

Still, voters in Kansas, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania chose strong anti-abortion candidates.

Especially notable in this election was the success of the two independent candidates.

In Connecticut, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the former maverick Republican senator turned independent, capitalized on his high name recognition among voters to slip past his Republican and Democratic opponents.

CIn Alaska, former Gov. and Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, also a former Republican turned independent, managed a similar feat.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said this marks the first time since World War II that independent candidates will control more than one statehouse.

"It's highly unusual," said Mr. Sabato, who called it another sign of voter "disgust with politics as usual."

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