GOP poised to grab control of Senate

David S. Broder
Sunday, November 6, 1994; 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on Nov. 6, 1994.

Republicans go into Tuesday's election with clear prospects of picking up enough seats to give them their first Senate majority in eight years and with almost as good a chance of taking over the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954, a final 50-state survey completed yesterday by The Washington Post indicates.

Assuming that tossup races divide evenly between the parties, Republicans would have a 51-49 advantage in the new Senate -- a gain of seven seats. A similar allocation of House seats too close to call would give the Republicans 214, four short of a majority but a 36-seat gain.

Late interviews with party officials, pollsters, campaign consultants and neutral observers in all 50 states suggest clearly that the voters' impatience with incumbents and the low approval ratings for President Clinton and many of his congressional allies may tilt the close races -- like Virginia's nationally publicized tossup contest between Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) and Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North -- toward the GOP. If Republicans were to win three-fourths of the tossups, for example, the GOP Senate majority might swell to 54-46 and Republicans might gain a 225-210 majority in the House.

A major caveat: With many of the closest contests in states and districts where no incumbent is on the ballot and with some late polls still showing one-fifth of the voters hedging their choices, forecasts may be worth even less than usual this year.

Democrats hope that with Clinton and Vice President Gore stumping in critical states, with the recent economic news upbeat and with approval for Clinton's foreign policy higher than it has been, the scale of their losses may still be trimmed. From Clinton on down, almost every Democrat has spent much of the last two weeks trying to convince the elderly, who turn out in disproportionate numbers in off-year elections, that a Republican victory would threaten their Social Security and Medicare benefits. Labor and minorities have been mobilizing frantically in the last few weeks to prevent a political reversal that would leave Clinton hamstrung in the final two years of his term.

Winning the majority of the close races -- those where even today's polls make it impossible to separate the candidates -- would permit the Democrats to maintain nominal control in the 104th Congress. But that Congress is clearly going to be more conservative than the last one, which in its final months blocked or weakened many of Clinton's major domestic initiatives. Candidates campaigning for lower taxes and smaller government are doing well, even in states like Maryland and Washington, where liberalism is usually an acceptable political ideology.

The 1994 campaign has broken the record for off-year political spending, and much of that money has gone for television spots. The negative character of most of the ads is expected by many observers to depress turnout, except in a few states like Tennessee that have exceptionally hot races.

Democratic operatives in New Jersey, Michigan, Texas and Washington, among other places, report that they see more Republican lawn signs than usual and more door-to-door canvassing by GOP volunteers. The difference in enthusiasm between the parties is even more pronounced across the South and in the Rockies and Southwest, where anti-Clinton sentiment is strongest.

In addition, there is clear evidence that nominally nonpartisan groups -- especially the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association -- allied with conservative candidates and mobilized by the political and legislative setbacks of the past two years, are likely to be a more powerful force in this election than ever before.

Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), defeated in a primary upset after being targeted by term-limit supporters, conservative Christian and anti-gun groups, said he has warned Democratic colleagues to "expect a 4 or 5 percent worse vote than your polls show" in districts where these organizations are active.

The anti-incumbent forces that dominate the Senate and House races are less visible in the equally important 35 gubernatorial contests. Republican governors in such competitive two-party states as Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin and Democrats in Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada and Vermont are all far out in front of their opponents, even though at some time during the past year many of them were expected to be in trouble.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) may be able to join Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the list of durable liberals who defied the election odds. Kennedy looks safe now, and will likely be joined in Washington by his son, Patrick, the favorite for an open Rhode Island House seat. Cuomo is still sweating out his race.

But other big-name Democrats have worse problems. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) has been unable to get his percentage over 50 in any private or public poll and could fall to challenger George Nethercutt (R).

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) is facing the end of his congressional career. The same Chicago Democratic voters who backed him narrowly in a primary last winter, when his indictment for misuse of government funds was just a matter of speculation, are telling their aldermen that the indicted veteran has to go, even though they know virtually nothing about his opponent, 31-year-old Michael Patrick Flanagan (R), who had no visible campaign until last week when the Republican National Committee rushed him some money.

Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) of the House Judiciary Committee, one of the legendary strongmen of Capitol Hill, is fighting for his life in his Beaumont district. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), who took over as acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after Rostenkowski's indictment, has had a tough battle in Tampa.

As hard as it is for Foley to persuade Spokane voters not to deny themselves the influence that comes with the speaker's post, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), a strong prospect to succeed retiring Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as head of the Senate Democrats, has had at least as much difficulty translating his Washington influence into votes in Tennessee. He has no more than a 50-50 chance of heading off surgeon Bill Frist (R).

Many of Clinton's closest political allies -- people like Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, who nominated him for president at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, and Rep. Dave McCurdy (Okla.), who made a seconding speech -- are in very tough battles. Miller is a shaky favorite for reelection; McCurdy, an underdog in a close race for an Oklahoma Senate seat.

But Tuesday night may be a nail-biter for former president George Bush as well. Two of his sons are in hard-fought gubernatorial battles. Contrary to earlier estimates, George W. Bush may have a bit better chance of defeating Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) than Jeb Bush does against Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), but both races are close enough that the Bush family may be up late waiting for final returns.

Overall, governors' races have not developed as well as Republicans had hoped earlier in the year, when they were predicting that a majority of all states -- and a vast majority of all citizens -- would have Republican governors. In California, the comeback of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) against State Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D) looks solid enough to last through Election Day. But state Sen. George E. Pataki (R) is now the underdog against Cuomo in New York, and the Republicans' best bet for a big-state takeover may be in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Thomas J. Ridge (R) is perhaps a step ahead of Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel (D).

The Pennsylvania and New York gubernatorial races are two of many contests at all levels that may be decisively influenced by third-party candidates. Some experts say the total votes for Libertarian, Right-to-Life and other independent candidates will be high enough to confirm that the anti-party fever that fed Ross Perot's effort in 1992 has grown even stronger. Independent gubernatorial candidates in Maine and perhaps Connecticut are serious possibilities for election.

As for the Senate, the consensus is that Republicans, who now have 44 seats, will almost certainly take over from Democrats in Arizona, Maine, Ohio and the Tennessee vacancy once held by Gore. They have good to excellent prospects as well in Michigan, Oklahoma, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California and against Sasser in the second Tennessee race.

The best chance for Democrats to win a Republican-held seat is the open seat in Minnesota, with lesser possibilities in Delaware, Vermont and Washington. If the Republican tide is very strong, Democrats could also be in trouble in New Jersey and New Mexico.

In the House races, multiple-seat gains are possible for the Republicans in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

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