Election Day predictions scaled back Modest surge in support among Democrats noted as elections approach

Sex scandal plays limited role

Most incumbents, except Glendening, big favorites

November 01, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the impeachment of President Clinton potentially riding on the outcome, Republicans appear headed for smaller-than-expected gains in congressional elections Tuesday, according to independent analysts and politicians in both parties.

A modest surge of Democratic support in recent days seems to have eroded chances for a big Republican pickup of House and Senate seats. That, in turn, could strengthen Clinton's position in the post-election struggle over impeachment.

The GOP is now expected to add fewer than 10 seats to its majority in the House and one or two seats in the Senate, smaller gains than analysts were predicting last week and well below forecasts made earlier this fall.

A new CNN/Gallup poll released yesterday showed a 48-45 percent advantage for Democrats when likely voters were asked which party's congressional candidates they planned to back in Tuesday's election. A week ago, Republicans led 49-47 in the same survey.

"My own sense is that Democrats always come together in the last five days before an election," says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. He adds that some Republicans had "lost ++ perspective" and unrealistically expected a party sweep along the lines of the 1994 election, when the GOP gained 52 seats in the House User.Event 7 was not expected here! and eight in the Senate.

Among those who made such predictions was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who two weeks ago said his party would win at least 10 additional House seats and "much closer to 40-plus, if everything breaks for us."

At the same time, Republicans are expected to extend their control of most of the nation's governorships and add more seats in state legislatures around the country. However, a Democrat, Gray Davis, is favored to win the most important single contest -- for governor of California, the nation's largest state.

High anxiety

Anxiety levels are running high in both major parties, with less than 48 hours left in the campaign, because at least two dozen House and Senate races remain stuck in the tossup category. Republicans have poured almost $20 million into a last-ditch, negative ad campaign in key congressional districts, while Democrats are attempting to energize voters fed up with the way the Republican-led Congress is handling the impeachment matter.

"We've never had an election like this. We've never had an election in which the public is riled up by an impeachment inquiry," says Curtis Gans of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. He predicts voter turnout slightly below the level of the last midterm election in 1994, which produced a 52-seat GOP gain and gave Republicans control of the House.

No one is predicting a similar upheaval this year. Even though the results of the election are likely to influence the course of impeachment in Congress, the Clinton sex scandal is expected to play a limited role in individual races.

Against a backdrop of a strong economy and a contented electorate, incumbents are heavily favored in most parts of the country. An exception is the governor's contest in Maryland, where Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pulled slightly ahead of Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey after voters were bombarded with the most expensive -- and the most negative -- ad campaign in the state's history.

With 94 incumbents running unopposed, the highest number in 40 years, Congress will see relatively few new faces. In Maryland, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski faces only token opposition in her try for a third six-year term. All eight House members in the state are also favored to win re-election easily.

Impeachment prospects

Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, is among those who say that a status-quo election would reduce the chances that Clinton will be impeached. Unless Republicans pick up more than 20 seats in the House and five in the Senate, the likely result would be some sort of negotiated deal to reprimand him.

Predictions of big Republican gains have been cut back as partisan lines hardened and interest in voting began picking up among traditional Democrats, notably seniors, women and blacks.

"We're seeing Democrats coming home in a very brisk and enthusiastic way, and part of it very clearly is an impeachment effect," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.

Others point out that without the Lewinsky scandal, Democrats might have done even better.

"There have been missed opportunities on both sides," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Democrats might have been able to nationalize the election around issues like Social Security, Medicare, HMOs and education. But they would have needed the country's attention during the congressional session, and Monica had the front page sewed up," he says. "Republicans missed an opportunity by overplaying the scandal."

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