Posted on November 09, 1998 in Washington Watch

The 1998 elections are over and the Republican Party remains in control of both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. They also maintain a commanding lead is the number of states where Republican governors are in control. Look at the numbers. Before November 3, Republicans held 32 gubernatorial seats, Democrats held 17 and one state had an independent governor. Now, there are 31 Republicans, 17 Democrats and two Independent governors. The numbers in the U.S. Senate remain 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats, while in the House of Representatives the shift was from a 228 Republican–206 Democrat (with 1 Independent) to 223 Republicans to 211 Democrats (with 1 Independent). And yet despite retaining control, Republicans will spend the next several months engaging in a fractious intra party bloodbath since many correctly view the 1998 results as a defeat.

This is because, below the surface of the numbers are some striking victories and defeats that warrant closer examination in order to assess the real outcome of the November 3rd contests.

After months of focus on the scandal in Washington, Republicans were hoping for a sweeping mandate in November. They hoped to make the elections a referendum on the President’s integrity. Since the party of the President historically loses 30 seats in an off year election–Republicans were seeking gains of at least that many seats in the Congress and as many as five gains in the Senate. This would have given them a commanding control of both houses of Congress and the ability to set the nation’s agenda for the next two years.
In fact, Republicans focused so extensively on the President’s problems that they failed to articulate any other political message for their 1998 political platform. From August through September, Republican Congressmen and candidates became a national chorus calling on Clinton to resign. This was followed by Republican-led votes in the Congress to release embarrassing details of the investigation against the President and finally a vote to begin impeachment proceedings in November.

Through all this President Clinton, though obviously distracted by the scandal, continued to maintain that he was focusing on the “people’s business”. He lost important votes on campaign finance reform and health care reform, but finally succeeded at the last minute in getting Congress to agree to approve a budget that contained much of what he had sought in education spending, environmental protection and Social Security. Clinton then swung from this victory to nine days of negotiations at the Wye Plantation which ended with a widely covered White House signing ceremony. Thus in two critical weeks before the election Clinton transformed press treatment of his Presidency. He emerged as a leader with both a domestic and foreign policy agenda.

In the President’s absence from the campaign trail, Vice-President Gore, First Lady Hillary Clinton and strong Democratic leaders like Jesse Jackson criss-crossed the country appearing at Democratic Party events, raising money for their candidates and mobilizing voters for November 3.

The fact that Democrats were able to turn what was expected to be a stunning defeat into a virtual draw is largely due to the efforts of the Democratic leaders.
In any assessment of 1998’s winners and losers, then, the President, Vice President, First Lady and Jesse Jackson must be listed among the big winners of the year.

Clinton has, at least for now, salvaged his Presidency. While the impeachment process will probably run its course, barring any new developments, the momentum of this process has been seriously weakened. Republicans will now be hesitant to be seen as too aggressive and Democrats will not abandon their leader.

Gore and the First Lady earned tremendous credits as campaigners with many Democrats owing their victories to their assistance.

Jesse Jackson focused, as he has so often in the past, on mobilizing African American voters. They were the decisive factor in several big Democratic victories. In fact, African Americans are also big winners in 1998. In southern states, where Republicans have gained such tremendous strength in the past 10 years, African American voters stopped Republicans in their tracks. By increasing their voter turnout in key states and by voting over 90 percent for Democrats, African Americans helped Democrats win back governorships in South Carolina and Georgia and also defeated a Republican incumbent Senator in North Carolina.

African Americans and Jesse Jackson will be in a position to demand strong consideration from the Democratic Party in 2000.

Two other important winners in 1998 were the sons of former President George Bush. George W. Bush was reelected as Governor of Texas by a huge margin and Jeb Bush won as Governor of Florida also by a substantial margin. Both Bushs’ victories are impressive but only because they won control of two of the nation’s largest states but because in their victories they built broad coalitions that included substantial numbers of Hispanic voters and even large numbers of African American supporters. By developing what some are calling a “compassionate conservatism” and reaching out to minority voters, the Bush brothers’ victories may point the way to broader Republican successes in the future.

George W. Bush has always been seen as a more moderate style Republican, but Jeb’s victory in Florida points to another winner in 1998. Moderation won more elections this year, while extremism was the big loser. In 1994 Jeb Bush lost his first race to be Florida’s governor by running as a conservative ideologue. This year, he and several other Republicans and many victorious Democrats ran successful races by moving away from ideological extremes and developing a more centrist message.

The final winner of 1998 was the practice of GOTV–“get out the vote”. This was the first off-year election where both parties spent over $1 billion in campaigning. Advertising, mostly negative, and high priced political consultants used up most of that money. In the last week of the campaign, however, both parties spent their energies on old-fashioned direct voter contact in an intensive effort to get supporters out to vote. Arab Americans were part of this effort as well–and it worked. While the turnout was a low 35.7 percent of registered voters–the lowest since 1942–the numbers were higher than expected because of the last minute GOTV efforts.

If any lesson is learned from 1998, one hopes that it is that more effort should be given to mobilizing and encouraging voters and less spent on negative advertising that discourages voters from participating.

The biggest loser in 1998 was of course, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich. It was he who orchestrated the Republican strategy of impeachment as a campaign platform. Even during the last week of the campaign when it had already been shown that most Americans were not going to base their vote on their attitude toward the President, Gingrich authorized the spending of $10 million on a targeted national advertising campaign that focused on the President’s scandal. The strategy backfired and angered his Republican colleagues, one of whom said “we were out in our districts trying finally to focus the election on issues and Gingrich comes in and tries to remind the voters of what they didn’t want to hear about”.

For his failed strategy, Gingrich was forced to resign.

Not only did Gingrich lose, but impeachment, as an issue, lost in 1998. So did meanness in advertising and the divisive politics of campaign consultants like Arthur Finkelstein. Finkelstein has long been an architect of right wing ideological campaigning. In addition to his American clients, he was the campaign consultant behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 victory in Israel. He lost in two critical races this year. Republican Senators Al D’Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina were Finklestein clients–both were defeated.

Another consultant who lost big elections was Ralph Reed, former head of the right-wing fundamentalist Christian Coalition. Two of his fundamentalist clients, the Republican Governors of Alabama and South Carolina, Fob James and David Beasely, were defeated in reelection attempts. Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition were 1998 losers.

A final loser in 1998 was the State of California. Overshadowing the victory of Democrat Gray Davis as governor was the failure of California voters to overturn an arcane law that will make California irrelevant in 2000’s presidential primaries.

California has had a Republican Governor for 16 years and so one cannot underestimate the significance of the victory of a Democrat in this huge state that has 12 percent of the nation’s voters (and over 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to win a Presidential election). But California recently decided to move the date of its presidential primary election to March of 2000 so that it could also use its enormous clout to play a critical role in choosing both parties nominees.

However, in order to facilitate this effort, California’s voters needed to pass a statewide referendum to change their primary elections. The referendum failed and so California’s 2000 primary will be inconsequential–unless the state’s parties’ leaders can succeed in a difficult court challenge to change the law.

***

These were the winners and losers of 1998. But no discussion of November’s elections can be complete without some mention of the Arab American vote in November.

All six Arab American congressional incumbents were reelected. Three Arab American challengers were defeated, but all ran strong races in which they netted more than 43 percent of the vote. Jean Shaheen was reelected as Governor of New Hampshire as were 26 other Arab Americans running for state and local offices.

In targeted states, Arab American GOTV efforts paid off turning out a substantial number of voters on election day. A Michigan Congressman called me to note that the Arab American vote turnout was much higher than any other group in his area and was the decisive factor in winning the election of a candidate for the State Senate.

In Illinois, Virginia, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well, Arab American vote efforts were noted by politicians and party leaders. Not only did Arab Americans use phone banks and advertising in newspapers, radio and television to mobilize their voters, but both the Democratic and Republican parties used paid advertising and paid canvassers to compete for Arab American voters in these elections.

Thus the Arab American strategy for 1998 succeeded–Arab American candidates won. Arab American voters turned out in large numbers and, in critical states, Arab Americans secured their place in electoral coalition building efforts for the 2000 elections.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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