The Democratic Party ended up losing ground in the Senate, in part because the South still treasures seniority. But a number of races proved that "liberal" isn't always an embarrassment
(TIME, November 6, 1996) -- John Kerry and Republican Governor William Weld provided the best and the brightest political campaign in the country this year. Kerry, whose intelligence and commitment have kept him from being totally overshadowed by the state's senior Senator, Edward M. Kennedy, engaged in eight debates with Weld, the likable fellow who steered Massachusetts to economic recovery. Weld may have gone down to defeat because voters wanted to keep the best of both worlds. As former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas said, "There is a sense here that Weld has done a great deal for this state, and I share that view. If he's so good and Kerry is so good, why change?" This race may be run again some day--on a national level.
Strom Thurmond needs just seven more months in office to break the longevity record of Arizona Senator Carl Hayden, who served 41 years, 10 months and 11 days before he left Congress in 1969. With Thurmond's victory over challenger Elliott Close, it looks as if the 93-year-old chairman of the Armed Services Committee will make it. Close, 43, a textile heir and real estate developer with a virtually invisible profile and a nonexistent political record, had barely a chance against South Carolina's reigning Republican. Even the challenger's last-minute barrage of TV ads attempting to question Thurmond's competence by showing the stooped and unsteady Senator being assisted down a corridor could not save his race. Though a majority of South Carolinians believe he should retire, Thurmond remains a tremendously popular figure in the state, known for his personal touch, and still spirited enough to call himself "the Thurmondator" in his folksy campaign appearances at Wal-Marts, barbecue restaurants and on courthouse steps. "This is the most traditional state in the Union," says Charles Dunn, a Clemson University political scientist. "We don't have a history of turning people out to pasture."
In trying to decide who was to fill the seat of retiring Senator Sam Nunn, Georgia voters were faced with a choice between a man who resembled Bob Dole and a man whose past was reminiscent of Bob Dole's. In Max Cleland they chose the latter, a Vietnam War hero who lost two legs and an arm in a grenade explosion and then rebuilt his life through public service. A spokesman for Republican loser Guy Millner complained during the campaign that Cleland, 54, was "running on biography." But a remarkable biography it is: a triple amputee who overcame depression and prejudice to become a Georgia state senator, the head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter and a three-term secretary of state in Georgia. Millner, a wealthy businessman who looks as if he could be Dole's younger brother, spent $2 million more on the campaign than his Democratic opponent while trying to stick the standard "liberal" label on him. But Cleland carefully distanced himself from President Clinton and followed his own counsel to "stay in the sensible center." That broad appeal, coupled with his heroic background, made Cleland unbeatable, even though Southern Democrats hadn't won an open Senate seat since 1988.
Democrats looking to reverse their waning fortunes in the South will want to study Mary Landrieu's textbook Louisiana Senate victory. Landrieu, who defeated Republican state senator Woody Jenkins, aggressively seized the ideological middle ground. She reached out to conservatives by calling for lower taxes and a balanced budget while reminding her party's liberal base of her steadfast support for Medicare and her work in the state legislature on behalf of women and children. And at every opportunity she labeled Jenkins an extremist, painting a dire picture of life in "Woody's World," where abortion rights would be curtailed, assault weapons plentiful and--a cornerstone of his campaign--the income tax would be replaced by a regressive national sales tax. Jenkins, who made a name for himself in the legislature by sponsoring a "shoot-the-burglar" law and carrying a plastic fetus to abortion debates, made no attempt to temper his conservative views. He counted on the rising Republican tide in the state and strong support from groups such as the Christian Coalition and Gun Owners of America to put him over the top. Landrieu's win shows that even in an increasingly conservative state like Louisiana, the political middle is usually where the votes are.
The moderator of a recent debate between Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican he upset six years ago, said she needed "a whip and a chair" to keep the pair apart as they argued over federal farm policy. Indeed, the two staged a ferocious fight for the Minnesota Senate seat. In the end, former political science professor Wellstone proved that his '90 election was no fluke, and also that there is a place in the Senate for an old-fashioned liberal. He was the only incumbent Senator up for re-election who voted against the welfare-reform bill, thus earning him the sobriquet "Senator Welfare" in Republican attack ads. Wellstone, for his part, portrayed the former two-term Republican Senator as a puppet of special interests who voted against an increase in the minimum wage and for a pay raise for Senators. The incumbent, whose crusade for stricter ethical standards in Congress has endeared him more to his constituents than to his colleagues, does not apologize for his reputation. "That's my record," he says. "That's a Minnesota tradition. Call it progressive; call it liberal. Call it whatever you want." As of Tuesday night, Wellstone could call it victorious.
The 1928 John Deere tractor that Senator Larry Pressler likes to show off to his constituents has finally run out of gas. The Republican, first elected to the Senate in 1978, was defeated by Tim Johnson, the state's popular at-large U.S. Congressman. Though Pressler is a Rhodes scholar and was the first Vietnam vet elected to the Senate, he could never pull himself up to the stature his seniority warranted. ("A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste," the state's other Senator, Democrat Tom Daschle, once said of him.) Pressler's strength once resided in his image as the humble servant from Humboldt, yet even at that, he had a formidable opponent in Johnson, a five-term Representative who has been a quietly effective advocate for the state's farms, water projects, highways and Indian reservations. Pressler's sponsorship of the bill deregulating the telecommunications industry earlier this year did not win him friends back home--not after local phone and cable rates rose in the wake of the legislation, which Johnson had voted against. Two years ago, Pressler's push for the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave rise to the bumper sticker LET'S KEEP PBS AND PRIVATIZE PRESSLER. The bumper sticker came true.
"We've had enough," declared the Record, one of three New Jersey newspapers that refused to endorse either candidate. Said another: "We'll be grateful when this ugly affair is over." The battle for the seat vacated by Democrat Bill Bradley was indeed one of the nastiest--and with spending by both candidates totaling more than $15 million, one of the costliest--Senate races in the nation, and it remained bloody until the bitter end. But seven-term Representative Robert Torricelli, 45, has never lost an election in his life--and he's a guy who started running for office in elementary school. With a reputation for headline grabbing, he gained national prominence for his role in exposing the cia's involvement in Guatemala and for a now ended two-year romance with Bianca Jagger. But he gained victory by portraying opponent Richard Zimmer, 52, a fiscal conservative and social moderate during his six years in the House, as a harsh conservative, ready to shred the safety net, betray environmental causes and kowtow to the gun lobby, and by grasping firmly onto President Clinton's coattails: the President touched down in New Jersey for a last-minute rally over the weekend.
He never accepted Harvey Gantt's invitation to debate, and he relied on TV ads instead of glad-handing. But voters went for the well-known quantity when they gave Jesse Helms, 75, his fifth Senate term. The Republican's narrow win in his 1990 matchup against Gantt, 53, the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, was a study in divisive racial politicking. This time around, the staunchly conservative Helms tried to play elder statesman. But in the end, as Gantt ads hammered at him, the familiar firebrand came out of hibernation. As he told supporters in tobacco country a few weeks ago, "You will see editorials saying 'It's the same old Helms.' You're doggone right it's the same old Helms!"
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