Analysis: Election 2002 too close to call

By PATRICK REDDY  |  Oct. 11, 2002 at 6:58 PM
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SACRAMENTO, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- The 2002 "midterm" elections have twice been overshadowed by foreign policy: first by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and then in recent weeks by the sometimes-raucous debate over a possible war with Iraq.

Republicans need to gain just one seat in the United States Senate to take back control they lost in 2001 when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords defected. If so, they will be able to confirm most of President Bush's judicial appointments now being held up.

Democrats officially need another seven House seats to make Richard Gephardt the next speaker, but may need a few more than that to be certain as several conservative Southern Democrats have hinted they'll switch parties next year.

National polls show that Republicans are benefiting from Bush's wartime popularity, but Democrats still hope that the recent economic problems will tip the balance for them yet.

As has been noted often before, midterm elections historically have been forums for the opposition party. Only twice in the last century has the president's party had a net gain of House and Senate seats in a midterm election: in 1934, when the New Deal was beginning to produce a recovery from the Depression; and 1998 when the Democrats gained five House seats as Republicans overplayed their hand in the Clinton impeachment drama.

With the economy going through a slowdown, the stock market down more than 30 percent since 2001 and a severe drought hurting usually Republican farmers, the Bush Republicans would have been in deep trouble in 2002.

The Democrats have averaged gains of two Senate seats and about 30 in the House during the first midterm election of various GOP presidents in the last 100 years. If not for the war on terrorism, the Democrats would almost certainly have won the one Senate seat they needed to guarantee control of the upper chamber and also likely gained the eight or so seats necessary to retake the House after eight years.

But foreign policy concerns have thrown any easy predictions into uncertainty. At the end of August, Republican consultant Tony Quinn wrote, "As we approach the final weeks of campaign 2002, one thing is clear: Control of the U.S. Congress is a toss-up." Six weeks later, that much is still true. As we shall see, Democrats will likely win numerous governorships on Nov. 5, but the congressional races are still very much in doubt.

First, the statehouse races. For the first time in nearly a decade, state governments are facing lean times and budget crunches. The invariable result is to make incumbent parties much more vulnerable. Republicans currently have 27 governors, Democrats 21, with independents in Maine and Minnesota. Voters in 2002 will choose governors in 36 states -- 23 held by Republicans, 11 by Democrats.

Term limits and retirements are creating GOP open seats in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, thus giving Democrats an edge. Economics and the "time for a change" argument are driving Democratic gubernatorial campaigns in most of the big states. Republicans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Massachusetts and Tennessee are on the defensive; Democrats are in California, Alabama, Iowa and Maryland.

Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich is the Democrats' most likely pickup. Republicans have had the Illinois Statehouse for 26 years and outgoing GOP Gov. George Ryan has had the most scandal-ridden administration in the nation. GOP nominee Jim Ryan, though no relation to the governor, has been hurt by voter confusion and his deficit has risen from 11 percent to 16 percent in independent newspaper polls.

In Pennsylvania, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell has had a steady 10- to 14-point lead over Mike Fisher for three months now. While in Michigan, Democrat Jennifer Granholm has held smaller but still solid 9- to 11-point leads over GOP Lt. Governor Dick Posthumus. Ohio Gov. Robert Taft is safe and the only factor threatening New York Gov. George Pataki's bid for a third term is the independent candidacy of billionaire Tom Golisano, running on Ross Perot's old line. Golisano would have to win 15 percent to 20 percent for Democrat Carl McCall to have a chance of upsetting Pataki.

In the Democrats' most coveted race, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is locked in a tight race with Democratic newcomer Bill McBride. The latest non-partisan polls show Jeb with a 49 percent to 43 percent lead (anytime an incumbent is below 50 percent, they're in jeopardy). As in 2000, Florida will go right down to the wire.

Massachusetts and Maryland are two of the most heavily Democratic states in presidential elections, but female Democratic nominees are locked in desperate struggles there. Republican Mitt Romney, the organizational savior of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics who lost a tough Senate race against Ted Kennedy in 1994 was essentially tied (40 percent vs. 42 percent) with Democratic state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien in the latest poll. In Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, held a slight (45 percent to 43 percent) lead against GOP Congressman Bob Ehrlich. For both of these Democrats to win, they will need a huge turnout from minority voters in Boston and Baltimore.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was vulnerable on paper, but GOP businessman Bill Simon has stumbled repeatedly, including an accusation last week of illegal Davis fundraising in state offices that turned out not to be true. Davis now appears to be safe with a 45 percent to 35 percent lead in the Sept. 29 Los Angeles Times poll.

Republicans do have excellent opportunities for pickups in the strongly conservative Republican states of Alabama, Alaska, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And 40 years of Democratic rule in Hawaii could be ended by Linda Lingle, who barely lost to a termed-out incumbent four years ago.

Republicans incumbents in the smaller states of Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming look safely ahead.

Both Independent governors in Maine and Minnesota will be leaving office this fall. Democrat John Baldacci has a 49 percent to 30 percent lead to replace Angus King in Maine. In Minnesota, former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura "shocked the world" four years ago, but stood down this year. Democrat Roger Moe, Republican Tim Pawlenty, and independent Tim Penny all had about 25 percent to 30 percent in the last round of media polls. It's anybody's race at this time.

Overall, Democratic gubernatorial candidates had significant leads in 11 states; Republicans in nine states, with the remaining 16 races still close. Economics and the absence of foreign policy concerns in state races make Democrats strong favorites to gain statehouse clout in 2002.

Besides a few more Democratic governors, the other sure trends will be more women and Hispanic state chief executives: In Hawaii, both parties nominated women, and eight other female candidates were nominated on the mainland. Granholm in Michigan and Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas seem to be the most likely Democratic winners at this writing. Lingle in Hawaii is the GOP's most popular woman candidate. New Mexico is guaranteed to have another Hispanic governor --- either Democrat Bill Richardson or Republican John Sanchez.

In Texas, Democratic businessman Tony Sanchez also has an outside chance of upsetting President Bush's successor Rick Perry. The two Democratic African-American nominees --- McCall in New York and Joe Neal in Nevada --- are trailing badly. But McCall might win if his opposition in the suburbs and upstate New York splits.

There are 34 Senate seats up in 2002, 20 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Stuart Rothenberg, one of the best congressional handicappers, lists 15 GOP seats and nine Democrats as safe. (Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina are solid favorites to hold GOP open seats). That leaves 10 seats in play. Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia and Republican Sen. Gordon Smith are slight favorites, but on the "watch list" because their states went against their party in 2000. Each party currently holds four seats that are toss-ups.

The most vulnerable Republican senator is Arkansas' Tim Hutchinson. After leading the fight to remove President Clinton, Hutchinson divorced his wife and married a former staffer. Mark Pryor, the state attorney general and son of former popular governor and senator David Pryor, led Hutchinson by a few points in the September Zogby Poll.

Colorado GOP Sen. Wayne Allard faces the same problem all incumbents in fast-growing states face: the need to re-introduce themselves to a constant stream of new voters. (Colorado grew by 30.6 percent in the 90s). Allard defeated Democrat Tom Strickland with just 51 percent of the vote in 1996 and the rematch is dead even at 42 percent in the last Zogby Poll.

In New Hampshire, the bitter GOP primary where Sen. Bob Smith was ousted by Rep. John Sununu, has opened the way for outgoing Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to upset the Republicans in a conservative anti-tax state. Independent polls show the race to be essentially tied and Shaheen will be depending on independent voters suffering stock market losses to swing her way.

Texas may have the most interesting Senate race as former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is seeking to become the South's first black senator since Reconstruction. Republican Attorney General John Cornyn hasn't been able to pull away yet in President Bush's home state: recent polls have Cornyn ahead by just 4 to 6 points. The good news for Kirk is that a massive minority turnout may be undetected by polls. The bad news for Democrats is that most of the undecided voters are white and such voters tend to break against minority candidates on Election Day.

The Democrats' most troubled incumbent senator was New Jersey's Robert Torricelli. Polls for "The Torch" went into a free-fall after he was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee for taking improper gifts. But Torricelli dropped out and the New Jersey Supreme Court allowed Democrats to substitute former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The highly reliable Rutgers Poll showed Republican businessman Doug Forrester to be just behind Lautenberg. However, the demise of Torricelli turned a sure loser for Democrats into a toss-up.

Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan also will be severely challenged this fall. Carnahan was appointed senator in 2001 when her husband Mel defeated John Ashcroft after dying in a tragic plane crash just before the 2000 election. Widows traditionally have done very well in congressional races, winning more than 80 percent of the time. However, Missouri was a Bush state in 2000 and former GOP Rep. Jim Talent almost was elected governor two years ago. Early September polls had this race a toss-up at about 45 percent each.

Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone represents the only state won by Walter Mondale against President Reagan in 1984. But time and suburbanization have weakened the old "Democratic-Farmer-Labor" coalition. The GOP recruited former Democratic St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to run against Wellstone. The latest non-partisan poll shows Coleman leading 47 to 41 percent as Wellstone's broken promise not to run again has hurt him. Wellstone's best chance for survival is winning the independent voters brought out by the governor's race.

Democrat Tim Johnson won in South Dakota six years ago in a major upset. Since South Dakota has only one House seat, Republican John Thume has already been elected to statewide office. This race is basically Republican demographics versus a Democratic protest vote against the drought. Polls show this bare-knuckled race (Thume's attack ads imply Johnson appeased Saddam Hussein by voting against missile defense) to be dead even.

Perhaps the most famous House race this year is for outgoing Democratic California Rep. Gary Condit's seat in the Central Valley. Democrats made his district much more urban (and liberal) during redistricting last year and replaced Condit (who received much unwanted national attention in 2001 upon the disappearance and death of Washington intern Chandra Levy) in the primary with his former chief of staff Dennis Cardoza. Polls show Cardoza with a small but significant lead over Republican State Sen. Dick Monteith.

There are only (at most) 75 of 435 House races in serious contention. Redistricting in 2001-2 proved to be a net wash as neither party is claiming any big advantage. In the wake of Sept. 11, both parties agree that Republicans had an excellent recruiting year. And Bush has proven to be a record-breaking fundraiser (over $80 million so far) for the GOP. Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis was quoted in September as saying that he felt "so much better" about 2002 than he did two years ago.

This Republican edge in money and organization could be decisive --- unless a national Democratic tide develops over economic issues. Any such tide is not yet visible: An average of the latest media polls, including Gallup/CNN, on the generic House ballot gave Democrats a statistically insignificant 1 point lead.

As of this writing, Democrats lead in a majority of governors' races, but both houses of Congress remain up for grabs. More changes undoubtedly lie ahead, but that's the way things look now.

(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant for California Democrats).

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