Despite restive mood, voters expected to return most of Congress

November 06, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After an unusually volatile midterm campaign, a restive electorate delivers its biennial report card on the nation's leaders today.

Polls suggest that Congress, the institution, would likely flunk.

But nearly all of its members are expected to get a passing grade, although probably not at the 98 percent re-election rate of 1988.

Overall, officials in both parties predict relatively little change in the partisan lineup in Congress, with the majority Democrats expected to add about 10 more House seats and to shift their total in the Senate by no more than one seat either way.

As the campaign ended yesterday, President Bush, on the road much of this fall for Republican candidates, was again urging voters to reject the Democrats.

"Don't listen to that tired, liberal, class-warfare rhetoric about soaking the rich. Hold on to your wallets! They're after you -- every single one of you!" he yelled to cheers from a Republican rally at Tyler Junior College in his adopted home state of Texas.

But Mr. Bush's own recent 25-point plunge in the polls, a record drop for a modern president, has made his party's candidates reluctant to be seen with him and has prompted Republican fears of greater-than-expected losses, particularly if large numbers of Republican voters stay home today.

Experts say Mr. Bush's standing, while a factor, is probably not low enough to produce wholesale GOP defeats, however.

In the 1982 midterm, for example, when Republicans lost 26 seats in the midst of a deep recession, then-President Ronald Reagan's approval rating stood at 42 percent in the Gallup Poll, compared with Mr. Bush's 52 percent rating in a CBS/New York Times survey last week. The same survey put Congress' approval rating at 23 percent.

"How unpopular Congress is in the polls really doesn't make any difference. The only important number is how unpopular the president is. If the president is unpopular, his party does less well," said Raymond E. Wolfinger, professor of political science at the University of California.

He added, however, that Mr. Bush's collapse in the polls came near the end of the campaign, too late for Democrats to take much advantage of it.

Even if Republicans stave off Democratic gains, a status quo election would be regarded as a setback for the GOP. Already down 10 Senate seats to the Democrats and near a historic low in House strength, Republicans had hopes of defying history by gaining seats in both houses.

Today's voter turnout, the last imponderable in an unpredictable election, is generally forecast to reach a 50-year low nationwide.

That should help incumbents hold on to their jobs, analysts say, although an exception could be the close and heavily publicized North Carolina Senate race.

Republican Sen. Jesse Helms has engineered what his advisers claim is the most sophisticated and expensive get-out-the-vote operation in state history. They say the senator's chances of defeating Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, largely depend on getting Republicans and conservative Democrats who normally vote only in presidential years to come out today.

Some analysts, like Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, believe that a high degree of public anger could also generate larger-than-normal turnout for a midterm election in some selected states, which could create a few startling upsets.

"I think you're going to see some surprises out there. Incumbents that nobody thought could lose will get beat," he said. "Usually electorates at the end of a campaign are fairly predictable. This one is not. In some regards, all bets are off."

As Election Day dawned, fully one-third of the 36 races for state governor were still regarded as statistical dead heats.

In the traditionally Democratic, economically battered Northeast, prospects for Republican victories seemed to be growing in governor's races in Vermont, Maine and, possibly, Massachusetts, while Democrats had increasingly high hopes of gaining the governorships of three Sun Belt states that have tended to go Republican in recent years: Florida, Alabama and Texas.

At opposite ends of the Boston-Austin axis, two of the year's most heralded outsiders were stumbling at the finish, raising the possibility that either or both might wind up a loser by day's end.

John Silber, the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial nominee, appeared in danger of defeating himself with a string of controversial remarks that offended many state residents, including the women and liberal Democrats who have emerged as swing voters in his race with GOP moderate William Weld.

In Texas, millionaire oilman Clayton Williams was sinking under the weight of gaffes and embarrassments that began with an ill-chosen joke about rape last spring and peaked late last week with the disclosure that he paid no income taxes in 1986, a fact his Democrat opponent, Ann Richards, hammered hard at the close of the campaign.

Beyond determining whether anti-politician anger translates into defeats for large numbers of officeholders in today's election, voters may also provide clues to a number of other questions raised during the course of the campaign. Included are:

Has "no new taxes" lost its power as a campaign promise, now that Mr. Bush has been forced to abandon his 1988 pledge?

Will abortion turn out to be a decisive force at the ballot box, or has its power to decide elections faded along with its visibility as an issue?

Can the Year of the Woman, with a record 85 female candidates on statewide ballots today, produce the political breakthrough feminists dream about?

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