Republicans Look for Major Gains in Fall
By Ceci Connolly
Gains of that magnitude would give Republicans the upper hand in controlling the legislative agenda during President Clinton's final two years in office.
With Election Day still two months off, analysts say it is risky to predict the public mood in November. But in the last few weeks, Republicans have begun to capitalize on the increasingly hospitable atmosphere, while Democrats try to minimize the damage.
"We're now starting to look beyond the first 30 [hot races] to the next 30," said Rich Galen, a leading Republican strategist who helped plot the GOP takeover in 1994.
With help from the business community, the already well-funded Republicans have begun rethinking their fall spending plans with an eye toward pumping campaign money into a second tier of races that have suddenly developed into real prospects.
"We've recalibrated our expectations from '98 being a wash to a double-digit pickup" in the House, said another Republican strategist close to the races. "In the Senate, you can see 60. A lot of things have got to break right, but if you get past 58 or 59, then the tide takes you to 61 or 62."
Several developments in the last few weeks -- including Clinton's admission he had an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, growing international tensions and turmoil in the stock market -- have produced political uncertainty and the probability of more bad news.
"People are not waiting for shoes to drop, they're waiting for shoe stores to drop," said Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization that tends to back Democrats.
Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said "many Democrats feel cheated" that the Clinton scandal "diminishes voters' already limited attention" and "takes time, energy and resources away from other campaign activities."
Republicans have begun testing the waters with anti-Clinton messages in a handful of races, changing a year-long presumption that the brewing scandal was not a winning issue. The National Republican Congressional Committee has begun a multimillion-dollar ad campaign asserting, "Honesty does matter." In some races, such as for an open House seat in Nevada, they hope to link the tarnished Democratic president with other Democrats tainted by scandal.
"We see that integrity and honesty in government have risen to the top of the charts in terms of the interest of the public," NRCC Chairman Rep. John Linder (Ga.) said in a telephone conference call with reporters this week.
Although Clinton's job approval ratings remain high, analysts on both sides are beginning to see other data suggesting a Republican edge. From open-ended questions on which party voters prefer in Congress to a handful of surveys in individual House races, the numbers reflect more enthusiasm among core Republican voters.
"One thing Democrats do have to worry about," said Paul Maslin, a California-based Democratic pollster, is that "the Republican base of voters who never liked Bill Clinton are inflamed by this."
Clinton's affair and seven-month denial "will not make a 20-point difference, but if it makes a few points' difference it could change the outcome in a number of close races," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster based in the South who has witnessed the same growth in Republican intensity that Maslin is seeing out West.
Overall, it is hard to paint a gloomy picture for Republicans at any level.
The GOP entered 1998 with a huge advantage in gubernatorial races. Eighteen GOP incumbents are running for reelection, including popular ones such as George W. Bush in Texas and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, who could help boost Republicans lower on the November ballot.
In the Senate, Republicans would need five seats to reach the magical 60 enabling them to cut off debate when Democrats seek to block a vote on legislation.
Last week, a Chicago Tribune poll found Sen. Carol Moseley- Braun (D-Ill.) just 7 points ahead of her challenger, a wealthy political neophyte. Other Democratic incumbents in spirited fights include Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.). The Democrat-held open seat in Kentucky is also in jeopardy.
Many GOP analysts say a gain of three seats is more likely, although they see the possibility of an anti-Democratic surge swamping Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.).
At the moment, no one -- not even the most optimistic Republican cheerleader -- is projecting a tsunami along the lines of the 1994 blowout. But if any kind of wave develops, House GOP leaders plan to be ready to ride it.
"We're working with those candidates to make sure their fund-raising is sharp, their message is as crisp as can be and they are putting together an organization," said Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who is assisting with the campaign blueprint. "If they're in an area where you have a popular Republican governor or it's a good district, those are races that can take you from a single-digit gain to 15 or 20."
Replied Dan Sallick, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: "If they want to go looking around, we encourage them to waste their time and money."
Until recently, virtually every political professional in the country believed 1998 would be a tame year with a only small number of truly contested races. With about 80 House incumbents unopposed and dozens more facing only token opposition, both sides were focused on a couple of dozen skirmishes that would be fought over local issues.
But the expanded list comes from developments such as a recent GOP poll in Dallas showing Rep. Martin Frost, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, just 8 points ahead of his little-known opponent, businessman Shawn Terry.
To Galen, the Texas poll is reminiscent of the 1992 ouster of Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (Mich.), former head of the NRCC. "In a year like this, guys like Martin Frost who have done nothing to make people mad can get caught up in a wave."
Republicans see great promise in the South, where cultural conservatives tell pollsters they are particularly annoyed with Clinton's behavior. Democratic incumbents such as Reps. Melvin Watt (N.C.), John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.) are suddenly getting renewed attention from Republican Party leaders.
A cluster of Republicans running in the North Carolina primary have called for Clinton's resignation, while Watt says: "You can't presume someone guilty."
Redistricting has given Watt a district where 55 percent of the voters are new and the minority population has fallen from 52 percent to 32 percent. The contest is close enough to have prompted a plea for help from Democratic leaders.
Watt "needs your immediate support," says a Sept. 1 memo from Frost to political action committee directors. "We need to hold this seat and your immediate maximum contribution can make it possible."
Staff writer Helen Dewar and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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