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Sending a mixed message

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

WHAT DID NOT happen in this year's midterm elections was %% more interesting than what did happen. %%

%% The Democrats did not win a landslide victory. A lot of Democrats expected to win big this year after they threw the Republicans on the defensive with the "tax-the-rich" issue.

The Republicans did not improve their position in Congress or in the states. Earlier this year, a lot of Republicans believed the GOP might make gains this year, in defiance of the usual pattern in which the president's party suffers a setback in midterm elections.

The anti-incumbent revolt never materialized. Of 32 senators running for re-election this year, only one was defeated. And of 406 House members who sought new terms, only 15 were defeated. But six of the 23 governors who sought re-election lost.

The 1990 vote was fairly normal for a midterm. Democrats received about the same vote nationwide as they did in 1986, the previous midterm election year (53 percent of the House vote). By now, the pattern is well-established: Democrats make gains at midterm elections -- when all politics is local -- and then get set back in presidential years, when national issues take over.

What did happen this year was that the Democrats won a respectable victory -- net gains of one Senate seat, and nine House seats and a loss of only one governor. In American politics, however, the important thing isn't winning the election. It's winning the interpretation of the results.

Democrats will try to portray President Bush as a loser. The president's efforts didn't seem to do much good for such losing Republican candidates as Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota and Rep. Lynn Martin, the Senate candidate in Illinois. Bush was handed a particularly embarrassing defeat in his home state of Texas, where Republican candidate Clayton W. Williams Jr. lost to Democrat Ann W. Richards in the governor's race.

The Democrats' real objective is to create a veto-proof majority in Congress. If Democrats succeed in portraying Bush as a loser, Congress will find it much easier to override his vetoes. Wavering Democrats will gain the courage to stand up to Bush, and wavering Republicans will continue to defy him, as they did in last month's budget votes.

Republicans have to make the case that they succeeded in limiting the damage. After all, this is a recession year, and the Democrats did not come close to the 26 House seats and seven governorships they gained in 1982, in the most recent recession-year elections. Maybe not, Democrats will respond, but that is because their party was in a far stronger position going into this year's elections than it was in 1982. They just couldn't gain that many more seats.

Republicans achieved one goal, which was to keep the governorship of the nation's largest state in Republican hands and prevent California's Democratic legislature from rigging the reapportionment process again. Not only was Pete Wilson elected governor, but a Republican will replace him as senator.

This year's message was a distinctively mixed one. Republicans got several new stars -- governors-elect Jim Edgar of Illinois, George V. Voinovich of Ohio and William Weld of Massachusetts. And they still have some mavericks in their ranks, such as Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Sen. Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina.

The Democrats got one new star (Richards) and polished a few old ones (Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and senators Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, Sam Nunn of Georgia and Paul Simon of Illinois, all of whom won substantial victories).

A couple of Democratic stars were tarnished, however. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York won astonishingly thin victories against weak opponents. They paid a price for the rising taxes and bad economies of their states.

The gender gap was also a mixed message. According to exit polls conducted for Cable News Network, women voters were crucial in electing Richards in Texas and Bradley in New Jersey. But men carried the day for Wilson in California and Helms in North Carolina.

Black voters helped Democrats in many states, but they can legitimately claim to have elected Republican Edgar in Illinois. Edgar, who was endorsed for governor by Chicago's black-dominated Harold Washington Party, won a tight race by carrying 26 percent of the black vote.

Pro-abortion-rights voters helped elect Chiles in Florida and Richards in Texas. But anti-abortion voters helped Helms win re-election and Democrat Joan M. Finney win the governorship in Kansas. Iowa voters re-elected an abortion-rights senator (Democrat Tom Harkin) and an anti-abortion governor (Republican Terry Branstad) on the same day.

A pro-tax Republican won the governor's race in Illinois. An anti-tax Republican won the governor's race in Massachusetts at the same time that voters rejected a radical tax-cut initiative that he had endorsed. California voters, who accepted a higher gasoline tax in June, rejected higher liquor taxes in November.

The elections produced a sharp turnover in governors' races, with 15 seats changing parties. But only one Senate seat (Minnesota) changed parties. According to the CNN exit polls, the turnover of governors had a lot to do with the way voters saw their states' economies. In states where the governorship changed parties, an average of 72 percent of voters described their state's economy as "not so good" or "poor." In states that stayed with the same party for governor, the average was 52 percent.

In midterm elections, Republicans usually do better if they can nationalize the election -- get the voters to focus on presidential images and national themes, where the GOP has the advantage, rather than on local candidates and local themes, where the Democrats have the edge.

Not this year, however. With Bush slipping fast in the polls and 77 percent of the voters saying that the nation's economy is in bad shape, the Republicans had little to gain by nationalizing this election. For once, the rule that "all politics is local" worked in the GOP's favor.

William Schneider is a syndicated columnist.

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