Stunned GOP still to control Congress Lackluster showing seen affecting Hill's impeachment inquiry

Election 1998 : Nation

November 04, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Democrats showed surprising strength in yesterday's national elections, unseating at least two Republican senators and two governors, while seeking to defy history by picking up seats in the House.

Stunned Republicans maintained control of the Senate, and, apparently, the House, but the results were likely to do little, if anything, to advance the Republican push for Clinton's impeachment. Instead, a lackluster Republican showing could increase pressure on Republican congressional leaders to accelerate the impeachment inquiry and craft a deal on a punishment short of forcing Clinton from office.

In election night comments, Republican leaders played down the impeachment question. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it a "secondary" matter for the next Congress, but added that it would be "a dereliction of duty" for the House to drop its inquiry.

With many races undecided, it appeared there would be little change overall in the makeup of the House and Senate.

"This was sort of a status quo election," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

But Democrats were holding out hope that they might gain seats in the House, something that the party holding the White House has managed to accomplish only once in a midterm election since the Civil War. Network news projections suggested that Democrats could pick up House seats once all the votes were counted.

"People are saying, 'Let's get back to the kitchen-table issues,'" said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt. "Let's get the impeachment over with, fairly and expeditiously, but let's get back to our issues."

Disapproval with the Republican-led Congress and several Democrat-friendly issues -- Social Security and education -- were among the factors behind the ballots Americans cast yesterday, according to an exit poll of more than 6,000 voters as they left about 1,150 polling places around the country.

But Democratic strategists cautioned privately that the '98 election did not signal a major turnaround for their party. Outside the Northeast, exit polls showed that voters identified more closely with the Republican Party than with the Democratic Party.

Clinton, who watched the returns with aides at the White House, could only be delighted at the initial results. Among the first Republican casualties was the pugnacious New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, who once chaired Senate hearings on the Whitewater matter. D'Amato fell to moderate Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer of Brooklyn after the most expensive -- and )) nastiest -- Senate race in the country.

Another Republican who fell, North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, had been linked to the selection of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Faircloth is close to the federal judge who led a three-judge panel that selected Starr for the job.

"It's too early to be disappointed," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas insisted last night. He predicted that Republicans would add to their numbers in the House and retain their majority for the third time in a row, a feat Republicans had not achieved since the 1920s.

As is often the case in nonpresidential elections, the strength of individual candidates, local issues and the way campaigns were run might have had more influence over outcomes than did any national trends. Exit polls showed that three out of five voters said they did not consider the election a referendum on the Clinton sex scandal and impeachment.

As expected, Democrats ran well in their East Coast and West Coast strongholds. This year's biggest electoral prize, the governorship of California, went to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, according to exit polls.

Davis, an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s, became the first Democrat to win the California governorship since Brown 20 years ago. The next governor will play a major role in redistricting for the 2002 election, when California will add seats to its current total of 52 congressional districts, the most in the nation.

Republicans continue to hold the majority of the nation's governorships. And yesterday was a particularly good day for GOP gubernatorial candidates named Bush, both sons of the former president.

In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination, won re-election in a landslide. His younger brother, Jeb, who moderated his image after a 1994 election defeat, won the governorship of Florida, easily defeating Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay.

But elsewhere in the South, two Republican governors and one Republican senator fell, as Democrats posted their best showing in the region in more than a decade.

In North Carolina, Democrat John Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer, defeated Faircloth, a close ally of conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

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