Clinton's Woes Raise GOP Hopes for a Filibuster-Free Senate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 1998; Page A22
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) now trails in her bid for reelection, according to recent polls. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are clinging to razor-thin leads. The contest for a Democratic-held seat in Kentucky is wide-open. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) has gained some ground but remains in serious peril.
Some of these races had tightened on their own by mid-summer, dimming Democrats' earlier hopes for gains that could put them in a position to reclaim control of the Senate in two years. But now President Clinton's plummeting political fortunes puts these Democrats in jeopardy and endangers others, boosting Republicans, including the GOP's relatively few vulnerable incumbents.
Six months ago, the Senate contests appeared relatively static, with Republicans poised to pick up a seat or two, according to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, writing in a recent newsletter. "Now we believe the president's problems tilt the playing field toward the GOP, particularly in conservative, GOP-leaning states," he said. In an interview last week, Rothenberg said he sees a most likely gain of two to four seats for the GOP "with an outside shot at a fifth."
With five Democratic seats now viewed as toss-ups and only two GOP seats in anything approaching similar jeopardy, it is no longer out of the question that the current 55-vote Republican majority could grow to a filibuster-proof 60 in the Nov. 3 elections.
This is crucially important because, so long as Republicans hold together, a majority large enough to break filibusters would deprive Democrats of their last remaining source of clout on Capitol Hill: the power to talk GOP bills to death. Neither party has had a 60-vote majority, the number needed to cut off debate and force a final vote, since the Democrats lost it in the late 1970s.
A net Republican gain of five votes is "a possibility, not a probability, but a possibility," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report. She now sees as many as 14 competitive races for the Senate, proportionately more than the 50 or so that she finds for the House.
Although the GOP campaign committee is sticking to its earlier prediction of gains of one to three seats, some Republican senators are now more optimistic. Before the president's difficulties, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), one of the Republicans' sure-bet candidates for reelection this fall, thought a gain of a couple of seats was the best the party could hope for. "Now 60 is definitely possible . . . we could pick up seven or eight seats," Bennett said recently.
History was already tilted against Democrats because the president's party generally loses seats in the middle of a second term. Democrats once hoped to defy these odds. Now they face the possibility of a tidal wave that could lift all GOP boats -- similar to the one that ushered in a Republican Senate in 1980, returned the Senate to Democratic control in 1986 and tossed Democrats out of power in both houses in 1994.
At least publicly, most Democrats dismiss the possibility of such a sweep as GOP pipe-dreaming. They say that, with the elections still nearly two months away, it is too early to tell the extent of Clinton's troubles or whether they will spill over onto Senate Democrats. Many of them, such as Boxer and Hollings, have distanced themselves from the president by publicly condemning his behavior.
So far at least, many Democratic strategists say, voters seem to be distinguishing between the president and other Democrats.
Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman has seen two developments so far: Voters are scrutinizing candidates to assess whether they are telling the truth and appear "a little less secure about how things are going," both domestically and internationally, a factor that could lessen the edge for incumbents of both parties. But Hickman has also found that, while "people know what they think of the president, good and bad, those who haven't attached those opinions to Senate races are not doing so."
Democrats acknowledge, however, that the president's problems may well depress Democratic turnout while energizing Republican voters, make it more difficult to raise money for Democratic candidates and drown out their efforts to make the election a referendum on their strongest issues, such as education and health care.
Two recent independent polls showed that voters increasingly identify the GOP as the party that most reflects their values, that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to vote this fall, that moral values are rising as a political concern and that congressional prospects are tied to presidential popularity.
As usual, there is little if any contest for most of the 34 Senate races this fall; 19 or 20 seats are widely regarded as safely in the hands of one party or the other, slightly more for Republicans than Democrats. There is general agreement that the two parties will trade open seats from Ohio and Indiana, with Gov. George V. Voinovich (R) replacing retiring Sen. John Glenn (D) in Ohio and former governor Evan Bayh (D) succeeding retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R) in Indiana.
In another half-dozen races, the odds favor the party that now controls those seats, although some incumbents are far more comfortable than others.
Then there are seven Senate seats that are generally regarded as virtual toss-ups, all but two of them held by Democrats:
Illinois: When state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald won a divisive GOP primary, Democrats hoped for a repeat of two years ago, when the Republican nominee proved to be too conservative and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D) was elected. But ethical questions have dogged Moseley-Braun her whole term and could be amplified by the national debate over Clinton's behavior. A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Fitzgerald leading Moseley-Braun, 46 percent to 39 percent; another independent poll showed an even wider margin for Fitzgerald.
California: State Treasurer Matt Fong (R) has been closing in on Boxer, who entered the race with a financial advantage but weak poll numbers, along with a mediocre showing (44 percent) in the state's open primary in June. Fong has attempted to use Clinton's problems against Boxer, who has grown increasingly critical of Clinton. A recent poll commissioned by several news organizations showed Boxer leading Fong by a scant margin, 40 percent to 36 percent, roughly the margin of error.
Nevada: Even though Reid won a second term six years ago by a comfortable margin, two-term Rep. John Ensign (R), who represents vote-rich Las Vegas, bounded to within striking distance of Reid earlier this year, forcing the incumbent into early advertising that helped him only temporarily. Both men are popular and well-financed for a small state, which is conservative but often votes for Democrats. A late August Mason-Dixon/PMR poll showed Reid leading, 46 percent to 41 percent.
South Carolina: With three-term Rep. Bob Inglis (R) breathing down his neck, Hollings is waging the toughest fight of his 50 years in politics as he seeks a seventh Senate term from what is now one of the most Republican states in the country. GOP leaders, once skeptical about Inglis, are counting on him to pound another nail in the Democrats' coffin in the South. But a recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Hollings slightly widening his scant lead, now 48 percent to 40 percent.
North Carolina: Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) is the most endangered of Republican incumbents, facing an aggressive challenge from John Edwards (D), a younger, wealthy and telegenic trial lawyer. Both parties claim a slight edge. Faircloth aides have tried to link Edwards to Clinton; Clinton helped Edwards raise money earlier this year but has not been asked for a return visit.
New York: Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R) looks stronger than he did earlier in the year. But, with Democrats not picking their nominee until a primary Tuesday, the race is still regarded as too close to call.
Democratic-held seats in Wisconsin, Washington and Arkansas could also be vulnerable to any broad upheavals. Already, Republicans say their polling shows Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) trailing Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.), by one percentage point. Other polls show a comfortable lead for Feingold. Democrats say the race has tightened but nowhere near that much.
Republican-controlled seats from Georgia, Colorado and Missouri are also in various degrees of jeopardy.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company