Democrats gain Senate ground Upsets dash hopes of Republicans for stronger majority

Election 1998 : Nation

November 04, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Riding a strong minority vote and wave of Democratic disgust with attacks on the president, Democrats defied all odds to hold their ground in the Senate -- and may have actually gained ground on the Republican majority.

The early upsets were stunning -- in particular the defeat of Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato in New York -- as one close race after another broke Democratic. Republican dreams of a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority seemed to lie in tatters, although they seemed realistic just weeks ago.

"The issues were on the Democratic side," gloated California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In New York, the months-long mud slinging between the three-term D'Amato and Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer ended with Schumer scrambling across the finish line first.

The issues weren't local, but the attacks were highly personal, said Cornell University political scientist Theodore J. Lowi. "I thought nobody could beat that Senator D'Amato," Lowi said in bemusement last night. "There were so many potholes filled, especially in New York City, that I thought he could never lose. It turned out to be a question of who really is the least disliked man."

In North Carolina, Democratic trial lawyer John Edwards defeated conservative Republican freshman Sen. Lauch Faircloth, despite the GOP's all-out effort to link Edwards with scandal-tarred President Clinton.

And embattled Democratic senators held off their Republican challengers. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a 22-year Senate veteran, not only beat back the stiff challenge from Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, he beat Inglis handily as part of a remarkable Democratic resurgence in heavily Republican South Carolina. An overwhelming African-American vote pushed Hollings to victory, along with Jim Hodges, the Democrat who upset incumbent Republican Gov. David Beasley.

To rub salt in Republican wounds, Democrat Glenn Reese was poised to take Inglis' House seat.

"These have been dramatic, even shocking upsets, particularly in the Southern states," said Tony Wyche, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

The key for Democrats was turnout. Democratic operatives marveled at the surge in African-American and Latino voters, and they seemed to make a difference. In South Carolina, for instance, early numbers indicated Inglis handily won the white vote, but 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Hollings.

As expected, former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana easily beat Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats. Eighteen years ago, Bayh's father, Birch Bayh, was swept aside by the Reagan landslide and replaced with a young conservative named Dan Quayle. Since then, Indiana has been a reliably conservative and Republican state.

But Evan Bayh built a solid reputation as a moderate and was highly popular as governor. Coats retired, in part, because he knew he would have to face Bayh in any re-election bid.

While Senate Democrats had counted on Bayh's victory, their excitement was tempered by expectations that retiring Sen. John Glenn's Democratic seat next door in Ohio would go to retiring Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich. The Midwest may wind up a wash.

Most incumbent senators cruised to victory, including Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski.

Few pollsters or pundits could remember an election with so many Senate contests so hotly contested. The neck-and-neck races in California, Washington State, Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and New York were graphic illustrations of how evenly divided the nation is between the two major parties.

"It's been that way since mid-1980s. Neither party can get much of an edge. The two parties have been at parity for some time," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "To break that, there will have to be a real change in our economic circumstances or a leader emerging with truly new ideas."

Given that breakdown, even modest shifts in voter sentiment or Election Day turnout can mean major changes in the Senate. Republicans now hold a 55-45 seat edge, but under Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to break off debate and pass a contentious bill. Major Republican legislation -- including an overhaul of product liability law and a dramatic change in bankruptcy protections fell to Democratic filibusters this year.

Republicans were hoping that if the GOP attains a filibuster-proof majority, conservative legislation would fly through Congress in the next two years.

Clinton also has a major stake in the Senate outcome. If the pTC House approves articles of impeachment this year or next, the Senate would be asked to hold a trial to consider the charges.

To remove the president from power, however, would take the vote of 67 senators, meaning at least a handful of Democrats would have to vote with Republicans. But that handful shrinks if the GOP Senate majority grows.

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