Only question is the size of GOP victory CAMPAIGN 1994

November 06, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,JEROLD COUNCIL/SUN STAFF GRAPHICWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night is shaping up as a big one for Republicans. The only question is how big.

An unusually large number of races are still up for grabs -- along with control of both houses of Congress -- as one of the nastiest midterm campaigns in years ends with a flood of negative ads.

Even if Democrats manage to win most of the close ones, analysts say, Republicans still will rack up major gains in contests for Congress, governor and state legislatures.

The back-from-the-brink candidacies of high-profile Democrats such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California have spurred talk of a late Democratic surge.

But while races around the country seem to be tightening as the election nears, politicians in both parties say that Republicans, only two years after losing the White House, are in a commanding position heading into the closing hours of the 1994 campaign.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that the Republicans appear to be prospering in what should be a fertile political environment for President Clinton and his party: steady economic growth at home and peace abroad.

Instead, Mr. Clinton, facing the very real prospect of a conservative takeover of Congress and two more years of partisan bickering in Washington, is mounting a frantic effort this weekend to hold off the Republican tide. But as he flies from coast to coast and back, Air Force One is staying far away from the South, where his own popularity remains low and where much of the Republican surge is taking shape.

"I'm going where I can do the most good," says Mr. Clinton, who will wind up his campaign swing with stops today and tomorrow in California, Washington state, Minnesota, Michigan and Delaware.

Even in such traditionally Democratic states as New York and Maryland, Republican candidates for governor are mounting their strongest efforts in years. The GOP is expected to pick up at least five statehouses nationwide and has an outside shot to win the governorships of the eight largest states, including Texas and Florida, where sons of former President George Bush are in tight races with incumbent Democrats Ann Richards and Lawton Chiles. In the Senate, Republicans are extremely close to a takeover, with Republican candidates heavily favored to pick up at least four of the seven seats the party needs to gain control.

An additional eight seats -- six now held by Democrats, two by Republicans -- could go either way.

Among the races that could decide who rules the Senate for the next two years: the dead-even dogfight in Virginia between Oliver L. North and Sen. Charles S. Robb and the tightening Pennsylvania contest between incumbent Democrat Harris Wofford and Republican Rep. Rick Santorum, whose remarks about cutting Social Security have damaged his chances.

In the House, officials of both major parties are predicting Republican gains of at least 25 seats. That would increase Republican strength in the House to its highest level since the 1950s.

Among the endangered Democrats is Rep. Thomas S. Foley of Washington, who could become the first House speaker in more than a century to be unseated.

What once seemed unthinkable -- a 40-seat pickup that would give Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years -- is still within the realm of possibility.

"I do believe we're going to win the majority," declares Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We're on the verge of an incredible victory."

Similar Republican boasts have been written off as mere political hyperbole in the past. But not this time.

An unusually large number of House and Senate contests -- more than 100, by most estimates -- could still go either way, party officials say.

Yet even before the first ballots are counted, top Democrats, including senior White House aides, have conceded what amounts to a significant Republican victory by historic standards.

White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta is predicting a Democratic loss of 25 House seats and three or four Senate seats. That estimate is twice the "normal" midterm loss for a party in power.

Since 1950, the president's party has lost an average of 12 House seats and no Senate seats in the first midterm election of his presidency.

Those losses typically come from marginal House seats that were gained two years earlier, when congressional candidates rode the new president's coattails into power.

But except in West Coast states, Mr. Clinton exerted no such pull in 1992; in fact, his party lost 10 House seats that year.

To explain the reasons behind the Republican tilt in the 1994 election, political scientists and politicians point to a variety of factors. They include:

Anti-incumbent mood

The anti-Washington, anti-incumbent anger of recent years has come back with a vengeance this year. The difference is that this time there's a Democrat in the White House to blame.

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