Candidates Are Held Hostage by Scandal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 1998; Page A01
Members of Congress begin the final three weeks of the midterm election with Republicans still heavily favored to gain seats in the House and Senate. But strategists in both parties said the GOP advantage has been eroded in the past two weeks by the hardening of partisan lines drawn around Thursday's vote in the House to begin an impeachment inquiry against President Clinton.
Candidates from both parties face an uncertain environment back home, with voters disgusted by Clinton's behavior, anxious for the matter to be resolved quickly and generally disengaged from this year's campaigns. Most candidates say they will try to avoid the issue in their final appeals to voters, but they recognize that the scandal is likely to determine the outcome of many close races, particularly in the House.
The results on Nov. 3 will directly affect Clinton's future. A sweeping GOP victory could embolden Republicans to push to remove the president from office. Modest Republican gains of the size normally associated with an election in a president's sixth year in office could hasten negotiations that would lead to censure or some other rebuke.
With Thursday's vote, candidates across the country are now held hostage to the issue of scandal. "I feel like a prisoner to national events," said Mark Green, a Republican challenger in a contested House race in northern Wisconsin. "I have no control over it. I wish that I did. We're trying to stay focused on local conditions, but it's inevitable that people are thinking about this. I don't know whether that's good or bad for Republicans."
Most Republican strategists say the scandal is good for their party because it has energized their most conservative supporters, who they say are anxious to send a message of unhappiness with Clinton on Election Day. GOP strategists say their candidates don't need to focus on Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky or the impending impeachment hearings in the House.
"We're not making the mistake of wasting our time talking about the scandal," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "That pot's already been stirred. . . . Anybody thinking Republicans weren't touching it because they're afraid of the impact of it is not dealing with a full deck."
But Democrats say the winds have shifted in the past two weeks, with signs that their core supporters have become more energized. A month ago, Democrats feared a GOP blowout was beginning to take shape. Now they argue that a partisan backlash against the Republicans could develop in the final weeks of the campaign.
"Thirty days ago, Republicans were much more intensely motivated," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. "The more Republicans push toward impeachment, the more you see the intensity heating up among Democratic voters. Three weeks from now, I don't know if there will be any differential."
"The sharp distinction has faded over the last [two weeks]," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "We still have an advantage, but there's no question the Democrats have made up some ground."
McInturff said he remains confident that the environment will give Republicans a decided edge on election day, but like other Republican strategists, he believes GOP candidates should focus on issues other than the scandal in their final appeals to voters.
Both parties expect the midterm elections to be marked by low turnout, and recent polls have shown that among likely voters, Republicans have a decided edge, largely because of evidence that Democratic voters are demoralized by the scandal that has enveloped Clinton's presidency. But in the past week, analysts from both parties have grown more cautious about predicting the final impact of the scandal.
"Everybody is treating this issue in a very gingerly fashion because it has the potential to break very late in a way that nobody can predict at the moment," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "If you're looking for the political currents, we have swirling winds."
Although there has been talk that Clinton's problems could produce GOP gains in the House of 25 seats or more, key Republican analysts expect gains in the range of 10 to 20 seats. Republicans now hold an 11-seat advantage.
In the Senate, Republicans should gain seats, but may fall short of their hope of picking up the five necessary to give them a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats. The scandal has clearly affected the races of two incumbent Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.
Republicans expect to pick up the seat of retiring Sen. John Glenn (D) in Ohio, while Democrats expect to offset that by winning the Indiana seat of retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R). Republicans say their best other opportunities for gains are in Wisconsin, Nevada and Kentucky. Democrats say they could offset anticipated losses with victories in New York and North Carolina.
The uncertainty of the scandal's impact on the elections is reflected in the approaches of candidates in two important House races, Green's contest in northern Wisconsin and another contest in suburban Seattle.
In northern Wisconsin, Green is challenging freshman Rep. Jay Johnson (D), a former local television anchorman. The district is heavily Catholic and conservative, having elected just four Democrats to the House this century.
Johnson voted against the Republican resolution on Thursday and instead backed the Democratic alternative that said the impeachment inquiry should conclude by the end of this year. Many Democrats were surprised by his vote, believing he might support the Republicans to protect himself politically at home.
Johnson said the majority of calls and messages to his office favored impeachment, but he also said his constituents want the matter resolved quickly. "People are saying we want closure," he said, adding, "They want something done to and about the president, but they also want their congressman to work on their issues."
Green earlier called for Clinton's resignation and repeated that shortly after Thursday's vote. But he said he is reluctant to criticize Johnson's vote. "We have purposely not gone after Jay on this," Green said. "We think if we start launching a campaign of bickering on this people will tune out our message."
The Washington race pits Rep. Rick A. White (R) against Democratic challenger Jay Inslee, who served in the House from another district until he was defeated in 1994. In 1996, Clinton carried the moderate district, which encompasses part of the city of Seattle and the northern suburbs.
On Friday, Inslee launched a new television commercial attacking White for his vote in favor of the Republican-sponsored impeachment resolution, which he said will mean "months and months of more mud and politics."
Speaking into the camera, Inslee says, "What the president did was wrong. He should be censured, not impeached. Rick White and [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich should not be dragging us through this. Enough is enough. It's time to get on with the nation's business."
Republicans already are energized by the scandal, Inslee said in an interview yesterday. Democrats will be hurt if they remain silent. "I think there's an army out there waiting to hear a bugle and willing to be quite active on this issue and eager to be engaged," he said, adding, "You can't tiptoe around this enormous debate and think it's going to go away."
Inslee's strategy represents a significant gamble for Democrats. Will the ads motivate core Democrats angry with the Republicans for wanting to impeach Clinton or energize opponents of the president who may be angry with him for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. Inslee said his ads are not intended as a sign of support for Clinton but as a chance for voters to tell Congress to wrap up the impeachment inquiry and get back to other business.
Inslee remains one of the few candidates willing to spend precious advertising dollars on the scandal. The political newsletter Hotline calculated a week ago that only 11 Republicans and 4 Democrats had used the scandal in their television ads (and three of the Democrats did it last spring by attacking independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr). Those who have talked about the issue generally have been long-shot candidates.
In Alabama, Republican challenger Gil Aust ran an ad calling on Clinton to resign, but he is still trailing Rep. Bud Cramer (D) by a wide margin. Cramer voted Thursday for the Republican impeachment resolution, and even before that happened, Aust acknowledged that he must do more than talk about scandal. "I have to introduce myself to voters as a multidimensional candidate rather than a single-issue candidate," he said.
In North Carolina, Republican challenger Dan Page, who is running against Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D), said national Republican strategists were advising candidates to stay away from the impeachment issue. But he added, "It's an issue that's hard not to address because of all the talk about the subject. It's hard to get away from it."
In New York, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter F. Vallone, who is in an uphill race against Gov. George E. Pataki (R), began running an ad Thursday in which he attacks the Republicans for wanting to impeach the president.
"There's one all-consuming issue in politics and government and personal discussions," Vallone's campaign manager Kevin McCabe said. "It's about what's happening in Washington and does the impeachment course fit the situation with the president. Doesn't a candidate running for a major office have an obligation to [let people] know where he stands on that?"
Candidates across the country are fighting to break through the clutter of scandal news from Washington. "The impeachment is like an iron curtain over this election," Democratic pollster Hart said. "It is blocking out all the other issues which the voters need and would like discussed, ranging from economic uncertainty to insecurity on Social Security. . . . You feel like both the candidates and the voters are marking time."
Gary Mueller, a Democratic House candidate in Illinois, got so frustrated that he called a news conference last month to announce that he never had an adulterous affair, never abused his wife or children, never engaged in homosexual conduct and never has been charged with a felony. Since then he has been featured on CBS News and interviewed for German television, but it isn't clear he has made much progress in his bid to unseat Rep. Gerald "Jerry" Weller (R-Ill.).
"We said we want to be on the offensive," Mueller said. "[The media] has set the agenda. We're playing by your rules. . . . Now let's talk about the issues."
Democrats are particularly frustrated, arguing that the issue environment strongly favors them this year. They say voters agree with their positions on issues such as education, Social Security and health care and if it were not for the scandal, Democratic candidates would be doing far better than they are.
But the other reality of this midterm election campaign is an electorate generally happy with the direction of the country and the economy -- an environment that heavily favors incumbents. That has helped to buoy Clinton's approval ratings throughout the year, but it is equally good for Republicans in Congress, particularly if they can muddy issue differences with Democrats.
Republicans expect to have a significant financial advantage in the final weeks of the campaign and their strategists say whatever erosion they have suffered in the past few weeks will be reversed by an avalanche of advertising. Democrats will be looking for ways to motivate their troops. Right now, they still have work to do.
The impeachment issue appears to have motivated African American voters. But women, who represent a crucial part of the Democratic constituency, seem less likely to vote. "Women are now less energized," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Candidates from both parties face a tricky challenge in the final weeks, which is to motivate their core supporters without turning off independent and swing voters or activating the opposition. But each side knows that in a low turnout election, the key to victory may lie in who can bring their most loyal supporters to the polls.
As McInturff put it, "Mad people vote."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company