Election edge swings to GOP Democratic prospects of gains on Capitol Hill fall casualty to scandal

August 31, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Back in the spring, Democrats were talking boldly -- and Republicans fretting openly -- about changing control of Congress. A switch of 11 seats in the November election would tip the House of Representatives into Democratic hands.

Today, the notion of a Democratic comeback seems more like a memory. As President Clinton struggles to put his sex scandal behind him, the center of political gravity has shifted in the other direction. The question now is how large Republican gains might be.

"The situation has changed dramatically," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a newsletter on congressional elections. "In March and April, I thought there was an outside chance the Democrats might pick up a dozen seats. Now, Republicans look like they could easily pick up a dozen seats."

Republicans may do better than that. Increasingly within reach, some believe, is one of the GOP's most cherished goals: a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Gaining five seats would give Republicans a total of 60 -- and a degree of leverage over the Senate that they've never achieved in the modern era.

"Suddenly, 60 seats is in play," Rothenberg agrees. "I don't think it's likely. But it's probably as likely as 12 seats in the House was for the Democrats."

Along with others interviewed for this article, the independent analyst cautions that there is little empirical evidence to back up predictions that Clinton's troubles will hurt his party's candidates. Indeed, Clinton's admission that he had lied to the nation about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky produced no immediate change in the polls when voters were asked about their choices for Congress.

Still, the outlines of the midterm election are beginning to come into view, and they suggest that Republicans are likely to build on gains they made in 1994 and 1996. At stake in the Nov. 3 vote are all 435 seats in the House, 34 Senate seats and 36 governorships, including Maryland's.

Most of the attention will be focused on about 60 close House races scattered around the country and about a dozen states with competitive Senate races. Maryland is not projected to see a change in its congressional delegation. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's re-election effort, however, could be one of the more closely contested in the nation.

Earlier this year, Republican consultant Ralph Reed predicted little or no change in the makeup of the House, with a best-case scenario for the GOP of a 10-seat pickup and, worst-case, a loss of control. Now he foresees Republicans adding between five and 15 House seats, two to four Senate seats and three governorships.

"Republicans may be backing into a very successful election cycle, simply because the leader of the other party failed to act with proper discretion and judgment in his personal affairs," Reed says.

Alan Secrest, a Democratic campaign consultant, acknowledges that the Clinton scandal "makes it impossible for Democrats to take over the House." Democrats were always expected to face an uphill struggle in the sixth year of the president's administration, historically a time when the party in power in the White House has lost seats. But Clinton's troubles, Secrest says, "present a further obstacle for the Democrats, if they persist. And I think they will."

Democrats are girding for possible further revelations about Clinton's behavior, which could emerge if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivers a report to Congress before the election.

Even without additional disclosures, strategists from both parties describe at least three ways in which the Clinton scandal could damage his party's chances:

Turned-off Democrats. Disgruntled voters, especially women, are a major concern for Democrats. If the Clinton scandal prompts more of them to stay home on Election Day, it might prove devastating. "One or two points in turnout," says Democratic consultant Paul Maslin. "That could matter in a number of races."

Turned-on Republicans. By all accounts, the most energized voters are social and religious conservatives, who will be voting for Republican candidates by an overwhelming margin. "They really are upset about the president's behavior," says Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster, who expects this core Republican group to turn out in heavy numbers as a means of conveying its disgust with the Democratic president.

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