A '98 Campaign of Skirmishes
By David S. Broder and Terry M. Neal
A year ahead of Election Day, the congressional battle for 1998 looks less like all-out war and more like a set of sharp skirmishes that may leave the power balance on Capitol Hill little changed.
Even if no national trend emerges, there will still be plenty of spirited contests, as Republicans struggle to hold on to the narrowest House majority in a half-century and Democrats try to position themselves for possible recapture of the Senate in 2000.
But strategists on both sides say the relative scarcity of open seats and the lack of polarizing national issues could make this a cycle where the strength of local campaigns and the skill of individual candidates is more important than any sweeping tide. As long as the economy remains healthy, incumbents of both parties should fare well.
Coming off their sweep of the major off-year elections last Tuesday, Republicans are optimistic about holding or expanding their shaky 12-seat margin in the House and perhaps repeating the two-seat Senate gain they made in 1996. "The message of more freedom, lower taxes and less government that won in 1997 will win in 1998," predicted Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
Democrats said it was GOP money not message that cost them potential gains in the New Jersey governorship and in a special election for an open House seat in New York. But the financial advantage is almost certain to remain with the Republicans next year.
The political environment shaped by such factors as the health of the economy, the stability of the world and the popularity of the president could change dramatically, as it did in the 12 months preceding the elections of 1994 and 1996. For now, however, what is notable is the absence of big political forces that expanded and intensified the congressional wars earlier in the decade.
In 1994, the wave of sentiment against President Clinton and the Democrats, plus the House Republican "Contract With America," created a national sweep for the GOP. In 1996, Democrats and their allies in organized labor made Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) a target in districts from coast to coast, boosting their House strength by 10 seats. But a rash of Democratic retirements in the Senate set things up for GOP gains on that side of the Capitol.
This year, retirements are down, the issues are murky and neither party is expecting much change in Congress.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) noted the other day that a shift of fewer than 12,000 votes in 11 districts could have given Democrats a House majority in 1996 and claimed "we have every reason for optimism" about next year. But Linder responded, "Democrats have a habit of claiming victory a year out, and we have a habit of winning on Election Day."
Privately, strategists on both sides discount the predictions, noting that today's political environment may bear no relationship to the atmosphere next autumn. In November 1993, for example, Clinton was riding high after passage of his first budget and approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The health care reform plan he had just introduced had not yet collapsed in ruins around congressional Democrats, sinking their 1994 chances.
Much may change by Election Day. But for now, a consensus of insider opinion suggests a year favoring incumbents, without much change in overall numbers in Congress.
Democrats concede privately they do not have a realistic opportunity to take back the Senate next year. They want to position themselves for 2000, when the large class of Republicans who won in the massacre of 1994 will be up for reelection.
Republicans hold a 55 to 45 edge in the Senate and will be defending 16 seats in November compared to the Democrats' 18. Democrats would like to pick up one or two seats, but would be satisfied to break even. "I really kind of view this as a four-year project," said Paul Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, looking ahead to 2000, when 19 Republicans including 10 from the class of 1994 and 14 Democrats will be up for reelection.
Next November, Democrats believe their best opportunity to pick up a seat is in Indiana, where Dan Coats (R) is retiring and popular former governor Evan Bayh (D) is facing a field of little-known challengers.
But Democrats likely will have trouble holding the Ohio Senate seat being relinquished by John Glenn. Polls indicate popular two-term Gov. George V. Voinovich (R) would have an easy time against the likely Democrat, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Mary Boyle.
There is another open seat in Kentucky, where four-term Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D) is retiring. The leading candidates appear to be Rep. Jim Bunning (R) and Rep. Scotty Baesler (D), and the race is considered a tossup at this point.
In Arkansas, four-term Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) is retiring. Both parties face wide-open primaries, with at least a dozen candidates announced or considering the race.
The last open seat is in Idaho, where Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) is leaving to run for governor. Rep. Michael D. Crapo (R) is the early favorite.
In other races, Republicans are targeting Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) as the most vulnerable Democrats.
Popular Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) delivered Moseley-Braun good news when he announced he would not run against her, but the GOP has recruited state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson as the establishment-backed contender against the conservative in the primary, state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
In California, Boxer will face the winner of a Republican primary including state Treasurer Matt Fong, millionaire businessman Darell Issa and San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. In South Carolina, Hollings has a declared opponent in Rep. Bob Inglis (R); former governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R) is still silent on his plans.
Of the potentially vulnerable Senate Republicans, Democrats believe they have their best shots against Alfonse M. D'Amato (N.Y.), Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), Lauch Faircloth (N.C.) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.).
In New York, with Rep. Charles E. Schumer and consumer advocate Mark Green already in the race, Democrats are still hoping that former vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro will decide to tackle D'Amato. Ferraro has said she will not announce until December or January. But that has not deterred D'Amato from starting his campaign against her; he has begun airing ads criticizing her stands during CNN's "Crossfire," where Ferraro is a co-host.
In Missouri, Democrats are counting on Attorney General Jay Nixon to take the seat held by Bond. But, they fret, an on-going feud between Nixon and Rep. William L. Clay (D) over Nixon's opposition to St. Louis's school desegregation program could hurt him among Missouri's large number of urban blacks.
In North Carolina, Faircloth is finishing his first term after a squeaker victory, but none of the three Democrats who have announced has been in a statewide race. And in Colorado, Sen. Campbell, who switched parties in midterm, is going to be tested by Dottie Lamm, the wife of former governor Dick Lamm (D).
On the House side, the most notable difference from 1996 is the drop in the number of open seats, from 53 in the last cycle to 16 expected for 1998. "Last time," said one Democratic operative, "we had 28 Democrats retire in marginal districts, and we lost nine of them, just about the number by which we failed to win the House. This time, there are only five of them, and the Republicans have an equal number."
Democrats also note that overall, 16 Republicans but only eight Democrats had margins of 4 percentage points or less in the major-party vote, presumably a measure of greater vulnerability on the GOP side.
On the other hand, Republicans have fewer freshmen 33 to worry about this time than in 1996 when they had 73 and the sophomores in shaky seats learned in 1996 how to overcome a major labor union assault and the drag of a presidential candidate who won only 41 percent of the national vote. "Those who survived the last cycle are smarter about how to respond," one GOP strategist said.
Republicans also like the fact that in a number of key states, the top-of-the-ticket races will feature popular governors who can provide a better environment than presidential nominee Robert J. Dole's struggling campaign did last year.
Money will also be an advantage for Republicans. The Democratic National Committee is $15 million in debt, which will hinder its ability to help candidates. Party officials have placed increased emphasis on recruiting challengers with personal wealth or proven fund-raising potential.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DNCC) has raised more than it did last time, $10 million by the end of October, according to committee officials. But Ed Brookover, NRCC political director, said his party's incumbents have an edge going into next year: As of midyear, the average Republican House member had $110,000 cash on hand, compared to $68,000 for the average Democrat.
As for the issues, the only thing both sides agree on is that they are less emotional and polarizing than those of the past. Democrats hope the agreement earlier this year on balancing the budget and reducing taxes will let voters focus on issues such as education and the environment, where polls show Democrats have the upper hand.
Republicans counter that voters know it was only their pressure that brought Clinton to accept the kind of budget and tax deal that became law this year. They are mightily relieved that Medicare a Democratic trump card is seemingly off the table, at least until a bipartisan reform commission brings back its proposals early in 1999.
Many of the races likely will be dominated by local issues, as seen in this year's special election to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), where winner Vito Fossella (R) and loser Eric Vitaliano (D) disputed who had done more to close the despised Fresh Kills landfill.
The blandness of the issues agenda leads some operatives to speculate that the main challenge for both parties will be turning out their voters. "We may have a lot of surprises, because of the turnout factor," one said.
The West Coast and the Midwest appear to have a disproportionate share of the close House contests, with the South providing some opportunities for the Republicans, who have seen their strength increase steadily through this decade. In the Northeast, where the trend has been strongly to the Democrats, 1998 will test their ability to hold on to half a dozen seats they captured by narrow margins in Clinton's sweep of the region.
California, always a major battleground, offers as many promising contests as any state, with challenges facing senior Democrats like Reps. Vic Fazio and George E. Brown Jr., and another battle in store for freshman Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), whose 1996 victory is still being protested by ex-representative Robert K. Dornan (R).
At least three seats appear to be up for grabs in Washington, and another cluster of contests can be found in the Midwest, notably Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, where both parties have shaky incumbents and open seats to defend. Kansas is a special case. Two freshman Republicans won narrowly in 1996 on Dole's home-state coattails and will have to prove they can make it on their own.
In the South, major arenas are likely to be North Carolina and Texas. Redistricting helps three freshman Democrats in the former state, but in Texas the expected reelection of Gov. George W. Bush (R) could cause problems for veteran Rep. Charles W. Stenholm and three freshman Democrats.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company