Democrats Narrow GOP's Edge in House
By Ceci Connolly and Juliet Eilperin
Democrats last night became the first presidential party in more than six decades to pick up House seats in a midterm election, but they fell short of wresting control back from the Republican Party.
Although the outcome of several West Coast races had not been determined by early this morning, Democratic and Republican strategists agreed that the GOP's already slim majority would be reduced by a few seats. The Democrats' unexpectedly strong performance was boosted by several upsets as the party defeated five GOP incumbents and picked up at least six open seats previously held by the other side.
The surprise twist came on an Election Day that began with Republicans still hoping to expand their margin. But while unexpected, the shift in power was still minimal, and failed to provide lawmakers in either party with a clear mandate on matters ranging from substantive policy questions to the ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Clinton.
The House is poised to open impeachment hearings against President Clinton later this month, but Democrats were already arguing last night that the election returns supported a quick end to the inquiry.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said, "People want us to get it over with fairly and expeditiously. I think that's what the election told you."
In an interview shortly after midnight, he added, "I think, if they have any sense, they will do what this election is saying, that is get it over with by the end of the year" and limit the probe to the allegations lodged by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Republican leaders were not commenting on their impeachment plans last night, instead emphasizing that they had retained control of the chamber.
"This will be the first time in 70 years Republicans kept control of the House for a third term," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said early in the evening. "Every committee will be chaired by Republicans, every subcommittee will be chaired by Republicans. . . . We will schedule legislation based on a Republican agenda."
From start to finish in this volatile election year, Republicans have confidently predicted that they would build on their narrow congressional majority. But last night, several of the GOP's incumbents found themselves out of work, including: Jon D. Fox (Pa.), who won by 84 votes two years ago in his suburban Philadelphia district; Kansas freshman Vince Snowbarger; Washington sophomore Rick A. White; and New Mexico's Bill Redmond, who replaced Energy Secretary Bill Richardson (D) in a 1997 special election. One of the most unexpected and narrowest losses of the night was that of New Jersey GOP Rep. Mike Pappas.
Among Democratic open-seat gains was Mississippi's 4th District held by departing GOP Rep. Mike Parker which state transportation commissioner Ronnie Shows won. In Wisconsin, Democrat Tammy Baldwin will become the House's first open lesbian, picking up the open seat of retiring Rep. Scott L. Klug (R). And in Nevada, Democrat Shelley Berkley won one of the most expensive and nastiest contests of the season.
Only one Democratic incumbent, Wisconsin Rep. Jay Johnson, was defeated, and Republicans by early this morning had won only three Democratic-controlled open seats. Party leaders were buoyed by those results.
"I said six months ago we had a chance of picking up seats and we just may," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), head of his party's House campaign committee. "The public decided about three weeks ago to forget about Bill Clinton for the duration of this election. If he was a factor any place, it was in the black community."
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a Judiciary Committee member who has led the charge against Clinton, said much of the blame fell on his own party's leaders for passing a "pork-laden" budget and sending "conflicting signals" on impeachment. "I think we need to sit down as a party and have some very frank discussions," he said last night.
History indicates that this should have been a rough year for House Democrats. Since World War II, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections. But despite an election all but overshadowed until its final weeks by the White House scandal, Democratic leaders said last night that they effectively tapped into the pro-Clinton sentiment to rally their most loyal voters, especially African Americans.
With a strong economy and exit polls showing most Americans not interested in Clinton's sexual misconduct, the final congressional elections of the 20th century produced spirited often vicious races dominated by local issues, personalities and money.
To the extent there was a nationalized campaign this fall, it came in the closing weeks, when both parties seized on the Lewinsky controversy to mobilize their core supporters. Although Americans have consistently told pollsters that the scandal would not affect their choices in House races, Republicans sought to focus voters on Clinton's misconduct. Democrats, hoping to capitalize on Gingrich's unpopularity, portrayed the speaker as the leader of a party bent more on investigating than legislating.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, with its enormous cash advantage, spent about $25 million on television ads, a fraction of which invoked the Clinton scandal. In a CNN interview last night, Gingrich defended his decision to run the last-minute ads targeting Clinton's ethics, arguing that it was not Republicans who are scandal-obsessed.
"The environment the media created said there was only one issue that mattered. Now here we are again tonight: I'm talking about saving Social Security, cutting taxes, strengthening national defense, winning the war on drugs and you want to talk about the scandals," he said. "I'll let the viewers decide which of us is fixated and which of us is trying to solve problems."
Overall, it was a good night for incumbents in both parties. Among the Democrats who had feared for their future but emerged victorious: Democratic Reps. Julia Carson (Ind.), Leonard L. Boswell (Iowa), Corrine Brown (Fla.), Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), Ted Strickland (Ohio), and Bobby R. Etheridge, David E. Price and Melvin Watt, all of North Carolina. On the GOP side, Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio), John N. Hostettler (Ind.) and Richard H. Baker (La.) held on.
Several of those Democratic winners voted with Republicans last month for a broad-based impeachment inquiry, including Boswell, Etheridge and Stenholm.
The current partisan split in the House is 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats and one independent.
Though reelection rates have fluctuated in recent years, the numbers suggest that virtually all lawmakers seeking another term will get it. After dipping to 88.3 percent in 1992, the percentage of incumbents who won reelection rose to 90.2 in 1994 and to 94 in 1996.
Still, it has been a decade of tremendous change in the membership of the House. The combination of retirements, electoral defeats and deaths produced more than 300 new House members in the period from 1992 to 1996. Republicans have reaped most of the gains from that upheaval: They entered yesterday's elections holding 51 more seats than when Clinton took office.
This year, the good economy and the turnover of the 1994 and 1996 elections which knocked off the most vulnerable lawmakers in both parties combined to create a relatively small electoral playing field. Ninety-five House incumbents did not face major-party opposition, and close to 300 more had only minimal competition. That left about 50 truly competitive House races this year.
As is often the case, financial disparities between sitting lawmakers and their opponents made the task for challengers all the more formidable. Only 13 percent of House members faced financially competitive races, according to the public watchdog group Common Cause, with incumbents enjoying a 10-to-1 advantage in donations from political action committees. Gingrich, for example, raised 650 times more money than his opponent.
Overall, the National Republican Congressional Committee outraised its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $77 million to $32 million.
Voters made selections for 33 open House seats, although many contests such as the race to replace Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) were virtually decided in the primaries.
Two closely watched Kentucky open seats changed hands. In the seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Jim Bunning who won a close race for the Senate Ken Lucas, an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat, defeated Republican Gex "Jay" Williams. On the other hand, Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler will be succeeded by Republican Ernie Fletcher, a family doctor who ran commercials with endorsements from his patients.
In Washington state, college professor Brian Baird, a Democrat who came within 900 votes of defeating Rep. Linda A. Smith (R) in 1996, won the seat she left to make a losing Senate bid.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company