Republican Party appears to maintain a hold on majority Democrats show strong, but they fall short of high expectations

U.S. House

Election 1998 : Nation

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

WASHINGTON -- On a day when Democrats scored remarkable victories elsewhere, Republicans apparently clung to their hold on the House, beating a Democratic wave but failing to follow a long-standing trend that hands the president's party major losses in off-year elections.

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 expected. 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 in doubt.

But there were early indications that the Democrats may have sliced into the GOP House majority.

"We're breaking even in the Midwest. We're holding our own in the South," said Olivia Morgan, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We're exactly where we need to be."

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.

"Democrats are finding the key to winning elections," said California Rep. Vic Fazio, retiring chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

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 rosy scenario 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, DTC leaving Republicans few places to turn for more gains.

But Republican frustration may also have been partly of the GOP's own making. Polls have consistently shown that a significant majority of Americans oppose GOP efforts to impeach President Clinton. Yet after weeks of skirting the president's sex scandal, the Republican Party decided on a last-minute gambit to link the 1998 midterm election with the president's fate. GOP advertising last week directly or indirectly raised the Monica Lewinsky matter in an appeal for Republican support, and national polls immediately registered a Republican downturn.

Republicans had hoped to energize their core conservative voters to come to the polls in a low-turnout year. But a Gallup poll last weekend showed Democrats expressing more enthusiasm for voting this year than Republicans by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent. In a similar poll taken just before the 1994 election, the figures were exactly reversed with 51 percent of Republicans saying they were enthusiastic about voting compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

"The Republicans rattled some people with those ads last week," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose polls showed Republicans with the advantage until last weekend. "They had some unsettling consequences."

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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