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Direct Access: Controlling Congress

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Washington Post Senior Correspondent Robert G. Kaiser hosts a live discussion about today's House and Senate elections with Post national political correspondent Dan Balz.

Kaiser: Good afternoon. is now on the air, so to speak, for the afternoon, answering election-day questions from readers. I'm Bob Kaiser, and I'll be hosting these discussions this afternoon, and again tonight as returns start coming in. Our first guest is Dan Balz, the Post's senior political writer. Dan has worked at The Post for twenty years, first as an editor (we were partners together on the National Desk in the Reagan/Bush years), later as our correspondent in Texas and as political writer. He's been all over the country this fall. We welcome your questions.
Dan, I'll ask the first question. Can any result good for the Republicans that might come in tonight be remotely as important for them as losing the governorship of California, which all the polls tell us is in the cards?

Balz: Sure. The loss of the governor's office in California, which has been widely predicted, is a huge loss. But they expect to pick up other governor's offices. Plus, if they were to make significant gains in the House and Senate, that would take a little of the sting out of losing California.

Arlington, Va.: The Republicans have a majority of the Senate, but there are an equal number of Democrats and Republican seats up for grabs this year. Does this mean that if the Democrats can limit their losses to a seat or two that they could take the Senate back in 2000, when the Republicans are more vulnerable?

Balz: Gee, let us get through tonight before we start thinking about 2000. But since you asked . . . The Republicans will have a number of folks elected in the 1994 landslide up in 2000, which could make Democrats feel optimistic. But if the split is 59-41, that's a lot of ground to make up in one election.

Madison, Wis.: Russ Feingold surrendered many of the advantages of incumbency by refusing to allow Democratic party ads to be run on his behalf. This is a radical contrast from the "no unilateral disarmament" policy of other Democrats. Do you think a Feingold win or loss will have much lasting impact on the campaign finance reform issue?

Balz: There's more to the Feingold race against Rep. Mark Neumann than just campaign finance reform issues, so I would be reluctant to say it is entirely a referendum on that subject. My guess is that it will not have that much effect one way or the other on campaign finance reform.

Columbia, S.C.: Any key early races you can recommend to watch for a trend emerging tonight?

Balz: Kentucky polls close at 6 p.m. Watch the Senate race there -- one of the most closely contested in the country. Also there are two open House seats -- one held by the Democrats, the other by Republicans. Three House races in Indiana could be clues to the night, and Indiana also closes early. They are in the 8th, 9th and 10th Districts. Democratic Rep. Jim Maloney of Connecticut is in trouble and that state usually counts quickly. In the South, three states close at 7: South Carolina, which has competitive Senate and governor races; Georgia, where Republicans are hoping to capture the governor's office, and Florida, where everyone expects Jeb Bush to become the next governor. One other: North Carolina, which closes at 7:30 p.m., has a terrific Senate race between Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth and Democrat John Edwards.

Burlington, Vt.: How will state assembly shifts affect reapportionment -- and how quickly will we know tonight?

Balz: Unfortunately we won't know too much about state legislative races tonight, but they are very important because control of the legislatures will determine the shape of congressional district boundaries after the next census. But the governors' races are just as important, and those we'll know more about tonight.

Arlington, Va.: Does Mr. Balz's remarks about 59-41 imply knowledge of exit polls? If not, how did he choose that particular figure?

Balz: Sorry, no clues on the exit poll front yet. We won't hear anything for an hour or so, and that will be based only on morning interviews, which are never terribly reliable.

Chicago, Ill.: How does turnout look across the nation thus far? Greater than expected or very low?

Balz: No one knows what the turnout is at this point. We all hear things about this precinct or that precinct, but I've never found those reports to add up to much. We expect a relatively light turnout, but we won't know until tomorrow.

Houston, Tex.: In this era of "Bob Roberts" political maneuvering, do you see any means of holding candidates accountable, so that their reality matches the image they put forth?

Balz: The press tries to hold candidates accountable, but we're not always successful. The public can do the same, by taking campaign ads with a grain of salt and exploring beyond the advertising to learn about a candidate's record. It does take some work, but politicians can get the message when one is sent.

Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why is it that every election our choice is always to pick the lesser of two evils? Aren't there any decent people out there anymore that want to be in politics and truly care to help us and not themselves?

Balz: I think those of you in New York have been exposed to one of the nastiest campaigns we've ever seen. The D'Amato-Schumer race started negative and got progressively worse. But there are plenty of decent people in politics all across the country. Negative ads have two consequences: they change voters' minds, and they turn off many voters.

St. Paul, Minn.: How do you think a large victory (20 seats) for Republicans might effect a conservative leadership challenge? And do you think that Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) may be the man to challenge House Majority Leader Dick Armey?

Balz: My guess is that if Republicans were to gain that many seats, the current leadership of Gingrich, Armey and DeLay would stay in place.

San Diego, Calif.: Are we finally going to be rid of Barbara Boxer?

Balz: The California Senate race is one of the best in the country -- or perhaps I should say one of the closest. I think Matt Fong's biggest worry right now is the drag from the top of the ticket. If Dan Lungren were running strong against Gray Davis, Fong would feel more confident. Boxer rates a narrow favorite.

Madison, Wis.: Why isn't the amount of money spent by national lobby groups paying for ads in support of local candidates known to voters in advance? How much has the tobacco lobby, e.g., spent on Congressional races this election?

Balz: We need better disclosure laws. We know up to a point how much some of these groups have contributed to particular candidates but tracking the money they spend independently is much harder -- and much slower.

Kaiser: We've got about ten minutes left with Dan Balz, who has a long night ahead. At about 3 p.m. we'll switch to Bob Barnes, the Post's Metro Editor, for a discussion of elections in the metropolitan Washington area. At 3:30 Tom Edsall of the national political staff will be with us.
Dan, before you sign off, I wonder if you could give readers a glimpse of how you'll be working tonight. How many stories, and how many words, will you be writing before you next go to bed? How many editions will the Post publish tonight? How hard is it, and how much fun is it, to spend election night in your seat?

Balz: I'm supposed to write the main news story on the election tonight, which will run about 2,000 words or so. But I'll write four or five versions of it, and by the end of the night the final result won't look much like the first edition version. I think we will have a total of six editions, including a late special edition that wraps up the entire election.

Doing this is more fun that hard. Things get a bit frantic around here on deadline, but it's a great perch from which to watch the returns unfold. I've had the good fortune to write the main news story for the past three elections and it is a great privilege. I think all of you who enjoy politics would love to join us in the newsroom on election night. We've got people reporting on this from every possible angle -- and a few others.

Marietta, Ga.: Is it possible that the reason that Republicans wont get the typical "6th year itch" gains in congress is because they got them in the 2nd year ?

Will having less then 200 congressmen be a psychological blow to the Democrats ?

Balz: That could be one reason, but also it's just a pretty good year for incumbents, given the state of the economy. As for the Democrats, dropping below 200 seats in the House would be a blow.

Abilene, Tex.: What do you think about Texas 17? Is it time to oust Stenholm?

Balz: Stenholm is in a tough race, but the buzz among the Democrats this morning was that he may survive. We'll see. It's a tough district for a Democrat.

Arlington, Va.: In California, the Asian vote will obviously be important in the Senate race between Boxer and Fong. Has Boxer's stance with the Clinton issue hurt her standing among Asians there?

Balz: The Asian American vote is key to Fong's hopes for winning, but it's not clear that the Clinton issue has hurt Boxer among Asian Americans in California any more than it has among other groups.

Kaiser: Thanks Dan. That was interesting. You were kind to give us so much time on this busy day. Now we'll focus in on the elections in our backyard, in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. (The Post is proud to be the biggest daily newspaper in Virginia, and the biggest daily newspaper in Maryland too.) Please also see our discussion with Bob Barnes, the Post's Metro editor.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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