Clinton scandal may have played key role GOP's bungling of issue became Democratic boon: ELECTION 1998 : NATION

November 05, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Under freakish conditions, an historic first.

For the first time since the Civil War, the president's party gained House seats midway through a second presidential term. Even more remarkably, the Democrats pulled it off in the first election to be held in the shadow of a presidential impeachment.

Despite the conventional wisdom that the '98 election wasn't about impeachment -- or anything else -- the Clinton scandal may have played an important, even potentially decisive, role.

For months, Republican strategists confidently predicted that voter disgust over the president's behavior would translate into dozens of new House members for them on Election Day. Instead, by the time Americans voted, congressional mishandling of impeachment had become a rallying point for Democrats. This week, they achieved the unprecedented gains their leaders had been predicting months ago, long before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose leadership position could be in jeopardy as a result of his mishandling of the Republican campaign, conceded yesterday he "totally underestimated" how fed up the public had become with the media's relentless focus on the scandal involving President Clinton.

Gingrich, who had a hand in the release of a controversial batch of anti-Clinton television advertisements that reminded voters of the sex scandal, said he had failed to recognize the need to provide voters with a more positive message.

"Things were happening out there that none of us fully understood," he said.

Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson said his party mistakenly allowed Democrats to define the Republicans by their aggressive pursuit of impeachment. Election Day exit polls showed that a clear majority of voters disapproved of Congress and its handling of the Lewinsky matter. That represented a sharp drop from the positive rating Congress enjoyed in the months before the House released independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report and the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony.

The election "was a referendum on the Congress continuing to be concerned about impeachment," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "The voters have clearly said, 'Get over it.' "

The $10 million Republican ad blitz in the final week of the campaign, which included commercials that accused Clinton of lying, became front-page news. And that may have inspired a voter backlash that gave Democrats the edge in close House contests.

"I think the Republicans were dumb to put all that money in those ads against the president," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican whose usual 40-point victory margin was cut in half this week. "It was a bad use of money, and I think it backfired."

Behind the stronger-than-expected Democratic showing was a surge of support from the most loyal longtime elements of the party's base, including ethnic and racial minorities and members of union households.

A sophisticated and expensive Democratic voter-turnout operation was instrumental. But the messages that went out played off anti-impeachment sentiment.

African-American voters, who appear to have made the difference in several senatorial and gubernatorial races, were urged to show up at polling places at least in part to defend their party's president.

"African-American voters were told, 'You helped elect [Clinton], and [Republicans] are trying to take it away,' " Lake said.

Labor union households made up a larger share of the vote than in the 1994 midterm election, according to exit-poll data. Even union officials were surprised by the "staggering" increase, said Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO.

Three of four union members said their most important goal in voting for a House candidate was a desire to persuade Congress to focus on something other than impeachment, according to a post-election survey of 807 union members by the AFL-CIO.

Throughout the fall, Republican strategists said they expected millions of social and religious conservatives to register their anger at the polls over Clinton's sexual misdeeds. But on Election Day, there was a falloff in Republican support among Christian conservatives, exit polls indicated.

"Republicans tried to campaign solely based on the anti-Clinton sentiment," said Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, who faulted Republicans for failing to promote a clear agenda. He added that Democrats drew a larger-than-usual share of his members' support by recruiting conservative candidates of their own, such as senator-elect John Edwards of North Carolina, who talked openly about their churchgoing habits and strongly oppose abortion.

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