WASHINGTON -- An election that could profoundly change the balance of U.S. politics goes to the voters today, after the most expensive -- and one of the meanest -- midterm campaigns on record.
The change seemed rooted in a bitterly anti-Washington, anti-politician mood -- much like the one that swept out President George Bush in 1992.
Feeding that angry sentiment was an unrelenting string of negative TV ads, fueled by more than $550 million in campaign funds in Senate and House races, a record high, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Odds favor a Republican takeover of the Senate, according to politicians in both parties, and a Republican takeover of the House appears within reach, too. Republicans have a good chance, as well, to gain a majority of state governorships for the first time since 1970.
The GOP controlled the Senate in the 1980s, but there has not been a Republican majority in the House during the lifetime of most Americans. The last time was in 1954, in President Eisenhower's first term.
At least 130 House races could still go either way, analysts say, but recent national polls show a strong tide of Republican support.
When voters are asked which party they favor in their congressional district, more answer Republican than Democrat, the first time that has happened in 40 years.
Democratic control of the House "is gone, or near gone," predicts pollster Alan Secrest, who has advised Democratic candidates in more than 30 congressional districts this year.
The pollster said he would be surprised if Republicans gain fewer than 35 seats; a 40-seat pickup would give Republicans the majority in the House.
Odds that Republicans will take over the House are improving and are now at least 40 percent, says Charles E. Cook Jr., a former Democratic campaign official who publishes an independent political newsletter.
"My gut tells me that they're probably going to get there," adds Mr. Cook, who rates 59 contests for Democratic-held seats as toss-ups, vs. 14 for Republican-held seats, including the Baltimore-area seat being vacated by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.
'Too close to call'
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst, predicts a Republican gain of between 35 and 40 seats and says that control of the House is now "too close to call."
Both men predict that Republicans will win the seven Senate seats they need to gain control of that body.
Yesterday, Democrats from President Clinton on down were waging a final desperate effort to hold back the Republican wave.
Their itineraries, and those of leading Republicans such as Sen. Bob Dole, provided the best clues to the states that hold the keys to tonight's election results: Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania, all with close Senate races.
Mr. Clinton's remarks to a campaign rally in Minneapolis, where Democrats have their best chance to pick up a Republican-held Senate seat, seemed to be a tacit acknowledgment that control of Congress is at stake in the voting today.
"Why would we want to give the Congress to people who want to take us back to what almost wrecked us in the 1980s?" said the president, who finished a week of nonstop campaigning with a rally last night at Rodney Square in Wilmington, Del. Even if Republicans don't gain an outright majority, Mr. Clinton would likely be forced to shift his agenda to the right on such issues as welfare reform, taxes and health care reform, or else adopt a veto strategy that would lead to further stalemate.
A Republican takeover, however,would further complicate Mr. Clinton's task and could lead to such politically threatening prospects as Whitewater hearings under the direction of a Senate Banking Committee led by Alfonse D'Amato, the New York Republican who is the president's chief tormentor on that issue.
States such as Maryland, which have a number of senior Democrats, could also suffer.
For example, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who chairs a powerful subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would lose that post.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, in line to become the first Marylander to chair a major Senate committee in decades -- if he is re-elected and Democrats hold the Senate -- would instead become the top-ranking minority member of the Banking Committee, a significantly weaker position.
Voter turnout is crucial in any election, but never more so than this year. Poll after poll has shown that lower turnout benefits Republican candidates, while Democrats would do better if turnout rises.
Most independent turnout specialists, such as Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, are projecting a relatively low turnout today, despite a small increase in voter registration nationwide.
Among the groups Democrats are targeting in their turnout effort: single working women and minorities.
One factor Democrats hoped would save them this fall -- Mr. Clinton's blip up in the polls after a string of foreign policy successes -- appears to have faded before Election Day, with most polls showing his job approval rating around 45 percent.