Republican Party clings to tenuous hold on majority Democrats hope to add three to five seats in 'a historic reversal'

U.S. House

Election 1998 : Nation

November 04, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In an election season when Republicans once foresaw major gains in the House of Representatives, Democrats were poised last night to make history and actually pick up seats.

Republicans clung to their tenuous hold on the House, but they failed to follow a long-standing trend that hands the president's party major losses in off-year elections. Indeed, when election returns are counted from the West Coast, Democrats expect to add three to five seats.

"If we break even or pick up seats, it would be a historic reversal of what usually happens," boasted House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri. "The people really spoke tonight. I'm very proud."

True to form for a campaign season that has defied predictions, the strongest pattern that seemed to emerge as Americans went to the polls was the least anticipated. Republicans failed to take seats they had strongly targeted, but Democrats fell short of their expectations as well.

"This will be the first time in 70 years that Republicans kept control of the House for a third term," House Speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed optimistically even while many races were still in doubt.

But the speaker had to concede the election did not unfold as he anticipated. Only last month, Gingrich had predicted the GOP would add perhaps 40 seats to its House majority.

"Frankly, we'll have to stop and go district by district to see what happened," the speaker said. "Clearly, there were races that we thought we were going to win that we aren't winning."

The evening unfolded like a ping-pong match. Democrats picked up seats in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, only to see Republicans win Democratic seats in the same states.

But Democratic gains began to pile up late last night. Democrat Dennis Moore knocked off freshman Republican Rep. Vince Snowbarger in Kansas. In a rematch from 1996, Democrat Joe Hoeffel beat Republican Rep. Jon D. Fox in the Philadelphia suburbs. And Democratic Attorney General Tom Udall of New Mexico unseated freshman Republican Rep. Bill Redmond in a liberal district where the environmental Green Party had acted as a spoiler for Democrats in 1996.

Democrats hoped to pick up other seats in Washington state and California.

The GOP had hoped to grab the Republican-leaning House seat vacated by veteran Democrat Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, but their candidate, state Sen. Jean Leising, fell well short, an indication that core Democratic voters may have been more energized than Republicans.

That was especially true in minority communities. The GOP had been gunning for the Indianapolis seat of freshman Julia Carson, an African-American. But that race was not even close.

But Democrats did not do as well as their most optimistic predictions either. Democrat Ken Lucas did capture the Republican seat vacated by Rep. Jim Bunning to run for the Senate. But Republican Ernie Fletcher grabbed the Democratic seat vacated by Rep. Scotty Baesler, Bunning's Senate challenger.

The competitive House races were fought out on the political margins. An 11-seat gain would have swung control back to the Democrats, after only four years of GOP hegemony, but an incumbent-friendly year always made that unlikely. Likewise, House speaker Newt Gingrich may have boasted last month that the Republicans could pick up as many as 40 seats, but such a projection was not realistic.

In the House, 94 incumbents ran unopposed, the highest number in 40 years. In nearly two-thirds of House races -- 280 seats -- the incumbent was considered a shoo-in. Even with 33 House seats vacated by retiring members, political analyst Charles Cook counted only 26 House races as tossups late last month, less than 6 percent of the 435 seats up for grabs.

In part, that was a natural result of the 1994 Republican House sweep, when the GOP picked up 52 seats, the largest gain for an opposition party in a first-term midterm election since 1922. That blowout mopped up most of the swing-district seats, leaving Republicans few places to turn for more gains.

Since the Civil War, the party holding the White House has lost House seats in every midterm election but one, 1934. In this century, midterm elections on average have cost the president's party 32 House seats. For elections six years into a president's tenure, the average loss has been 38 House seats.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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