Analysis: Congress control up for grabs

By PATRICK REDDY  |  Nov. 4, 2002 at 8:26 PM
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SACRAMENTO, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Voters this year have seemed disinterested in national issues despite a fertile field for debate: a possible wider war in the Middle East, an economic slowdown, the continuation of a stock market meltdown that began in April of 2000, and a severe drought in the Farm Belt.

Everyone agreed at the beginning of the year that the races for both houses of Congress were too close to call. David Peeler of Competitive Media Research told CNN that more than $1 billion has been spent on TV ads in the congressional races.

Even after a cool billion has been spent, no one knows for sure who will win all the marbles on Nov. 5.

First, here's a final look at the U.S. Senate races. The key fact is that a GOP gain of just one seat will hand them control of the Senate.

At the beginning of the fall campaign, independent polls showed that there were currents four Democratic seats (Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota) and four Republican seats (Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire and Texas) in play.

Two months later, those seats were still closely contested. In this somewhat unpredictable year, three more seats have since greatly tightened: Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Cleland of Georgia are endangered, while Elizabeth Dole (running to succeed GOP stalwart Jesse Helms in North Carolina) has dropped below 50 percent in the final surveys. We'll go in alphabetical order by party for the initial eight contests.

Republican-held seats:

Arkansas: Sen. Tim Hutchinson was the most vulnerable Republican this year due to his divorce. The latest Zogby poll has Mark Pryor up by 53 to 42 percent. However, the state is now just digesting the news that Pryor had allegedly employed an illegal alien for a maid over the last few years.

Colorado: This state and South Dakota have had the two most even Senate campaigns. Wayne Allard defeated Tom Strickland with just 51 percent in 1996 and hasn't been above 50 percent in an independent poll since January. The Nov. 2 Denver Post tracking poll had Strickland ahead by 42 to 41 percent, while a Zogby Poll showed the undecideds breaking Strickland's way.

Generally, incumbents below 45 percent lose in the end. But Allard has two assets: the popularity of President Bush and the strength of the local GOP ticket led by Gov. Bill Owens. Conservatives in National Review and elsewhere are already touting Owens for a national GOP future. If he pulls Allard through, he may well have one.

New Hampshire: After Rep. John Sununu Jr. ousted Sen. Bob Smith in a bitter GOP primary, most Republicans felt their prospects had improved in the Granite State. But Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has pulled slightly ahead in the late polls. Apparently, lingering hard feelings among Smith supporters are hurting Sununu.

Independent polls in the last week range from a 5-point Shaheen lead to a 2-point Sununu edge. In 2000, New Hampshire's four electoral votes -- along with the White House -- were tipped to Bush because of Ralph Nader's presence on the ballot. This year, minor party votes could determine who wins the Senate.

Texas: The Lone Star State is the most conservative of all the big states as Republicans currently control every statewide office. GOP Attorney General John Cornyn is a moderate conservative in the Bush mode and seemed like a sure bet to succeed Phil Gramm. But former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who was elected mayor with the strong support of the Dallas business community, has fashioned a new coalition of blacks, Hispanics, business groups and moderate urban whites to run a strong race. (If elected, Kirk would be the first African-American senator from the South in more than a century).

Cornyn led in the Dallas Morning News Poll by 50 to 41 percent. However, the Zogby poll has this race even and the Dallas poll may not be picking up the record minority vote being mobilized by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez (early voting in heavily-Hispanic South Texas was up by 200 percent from 1998).

Democratic strategists calculate that Kirk will need about 35 percent of the white vote to win. He's currently getting 30 percent and needs a historic late surge to make history (undecided white voters have always broken against black candidates in the past).

Democratic-held seats:

Minnesota: The big story here was obviously the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone and his late replacement by former Vice President Walter Mondale. In yet another topsy-turvy race, Mondale led former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman by 5 points in the Star Tribune Poll, while the St. Paul Pioneer Press had Coleman ahead by 6 points.

Missouri: Jean Carnaharn was another accidental senator arising from the death of her husband Mel in 2000. Jim Talent is the Republican seeking to fill out her husband's term. In no independent survey over the last five weeks has either candidate been above 50 percent. The Nov. 1 Zogby Poll had this race even at 46 percent.

New Jersey: The Garden State is another place where fate has intervened in this election with the sudden retirement of the disgraced Sen. Robert Torricelli and the resurrection of another "70-something" former senator, Frank Lautenberg. An average of the three latest independent polls gave Lautenberg 47 percent and Republican Doug Forrester 39 percent.

South Dakota: The "Mount Rushmore State" has some of the cheapest ad rates in the nation and its voters have been bombarded by negative ads from all sides. Democrat Tim Johnson won by just 1,200 votes here in 1996 and GOP challenger John Thune won his last statewide race with over 70 percent in 2000. The latest Mason-Dixon poll had Johnson ahead by 47 to 45 percent. But President Bush carried South Dakota by 60 to 38 percent and has made this seat a priority. This race may be tipped by what some farmers consider the Bush administration's lackluster response to the drought.

The newly competitive seats:

Georgia: Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War hero and moderate, should have coasted to an easy re-election. But GOP challenger Saxby Chambliss has rallied to within 5 points in the latest media poll by highlighting some of Cleland's votes against the very popular Bush administration (Bush defeated Al Gore by more than 300,000 votes here in 2000). There is a tradition of surprises in Senate races like Mitch McConnell upsetting Walter Huddleston in 1984 or Al D'Amato winning in 1980. This race could be the shocker of 2002 and is now on the watch list.

Louisiana: The Bayou State is the only one with a separate set of laws -- based on the Napoleonic Code. Also unique is Louisiana's non-partisan system of congressional elections where the top finishers have a run-off a month later if no one gets 50 percent plus one. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has been running in the mid-40s for most of the fall. If she falls short of 50 percent, control of the Senate may not be decided until early December. Millions of dollars will be poured into New Orleans during the holiday season: what fun!

North Carolina: Elizabeth Dole seemed a shoo-in to succeed Jesse Helms until two weeks ago. Dole, who almost became first lady in 1996, has faced a tougher than expected race from former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. The two latest independent polls show Dole with about 47 percent and Bowles in the low 40s. Bowles is benefiting from his long roots in North Carolina (Liddy Dole has lived in Washington for most of the past 30 years), but may have run out of time.

The campaign that just hasn't jelled is the Democrats' attempt to take the House for the first time since 1992. The national generic polls have remained within any survey's 4 percent margin of error. And in any case, control of the House will depend on 435 individual districts. The Democrats will need at least eight and possibly 10 new seats to assure control of the House (several Democrats have talked of switching parties).

As noted above, the national polls are essentially tied. Five of the leading congressional observers -- Michael Barone, Richard Cohen of National Journal, Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, Larry Sabato -- have all looked at the country one district at a time and give the GOP an extremely narrow majority.

But there are two counterweights to their predictions. First, according to CNN Senior Political Analyst William Schneider, the standard academic models, which factor in economics, "right track-wrong track" data and the president's popularity, predict a Democratic gain of about 10 seats, just enough for a majority.

And University of Houston Professor Richard Murray predicts that the huge Democratic Hispanic mobilization in South Texas will spark an upset of GOP Hispanic star Henry Bonilla in the 23rd District. He also gives Democrats the edge in the new 5th District near Dallas. Adding in three Democratic gains in Georgia, two in Iowa and the new 18th District in California (once held by Gary Condit) will give Democrats exactly 218 seats.

Professor Elmo Roper, one of the pioneers in the survey research field, was once asked to predict a certain election. He replied, "If I could predict public opinion, I wouldn't need to measure it." Professor Roper was, of course, right as polls are merely a "snapshot" of where a race is at a given time. There are numerous cases of voters changing their mind on the way to the polling place. The most famous example was in 2000 when the revelation of George W. Bush's drunk driving arrest swung the national popular vote to Al Gore over the final weekend. I will now break Roper's Rule and make predictions based on nothing more than a gut feeling.

In the Senate, Mark Pryor will be a Democratic pick-up. Based on the growing independent vote, Jeanne Shaheen will win in New Hampshire. Those two wins will guarantee a Democratic Senate unless Max Cleland and Mary Landrieu also lose.

The two returning septuagenarians -- Mondale and Lautenberg -- will eke out narrow wins, while Elizabeth Dole will ride the conservative edge in North Carolina to a narrow victory. In the other three races currently too close to call -- Colorado, Missouri, South Dakota -- Republicans will win at least one of three -- probably Missouri. The end result: 52 Democratic Senators, with 47 Republicans and Independent James Jeffords.

As for the House of Representatives, I'm going to stay contrarian and predict a stunning Democratic upset with Dick Gephardt becoming Speaker by one vote (218 to 217). I believe that the decline in the stock market (most investors have seen a 30 percent loss since 2000) will allow the Democrats to run even in districts where gerrymandering was supposed to favor Republicans. In a big surprise, middle class suburban votes in places like the Phoenix and Houston areas will vote against the GOP in a "throw-the-bums out" mood. The Democrats will then get the eight seats needed from the scenario outlined by Richard Murray above.

Many of these races are so close that we could see several Florida-style recounts delaying a definitive result until even next spring.

There is some precedence for this: in a 1974 New Hampshire Senate race, Republican Louis Wyman was credited with exactly two (!) more votes than Democrat John Durkin out of 223,363 ballots. A furious recount and legal battle then ensued. The full Senate refused to seat either man and as a compromise, ordered a special election to fill the seat (the political equivalent of a "do-over" from sandlot baseball). Durkin finally won the seat in the spring of 1975 with 53 percent.

So Yogi Berra's old quote may be right in describing this election: "it really ain't over 'til it's over."

The most bizarre scenario would be convicted felon Rep. James Trafficant of Youngstown winning re-election from jail and holding the balance of power in an evenly divided House.


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

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