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Republicans Poised to Gain--but How Big? : Election: GOP may have better shot at Senate majority than at House control. Democrats brace for some losses.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As the 1994 midterm election heads into its final hours, Republicans are poised to score gains sweeping enough to undermine--and perhaps overturn--Democratic command of Capitol Hill and give the GOP a strong hand in charting the nation’s political future.

This is a campaign Democrats have always known they would lose. And despite apparent last-minute recoveries by some of their candidates, the only question that remains before Tuesday’s balloting begins is how large the loss will be.

Interviews with strategists in both parties indicate that Republicans have at least a 50-50 chance of seizing control of the Senate, where Democrats now enjoy a 56-44 advantage. The GOP is expected to pick up no fewer than four seats and perhaps as many as nine.

On the House side, the odds are longer against the Republicans ousting the long-entrenched Democratic majority, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. In any case, the Republicans are expected to add at least 25 seats to their current holding of 178--against 256 for the Democrats. This would put Republican House strength above the 200 figure for the first time since they briefly controlled that chamber in the first two years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.

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“I think we’re going to retain actual control of both the House and Senate, and lose effective control of both,” was Democratic pollster Mark Mellman’s gloomy assessment.

Republican House and Senate gains on the scale predicted by analysts in both parties would have powerful long-range implications. They would leave the GOP better positioned than at any time in recent memory to take command of both houses of Congress--as well as the presidency--in 1996.

In the contests for governorships, late polling results suggest Republicans still have a plausible chance of winning in several major states now held by Democrats, although GOP chances of wresting New York away seemed to be slipping. And Republicans are confident of holding on to the richest prize of all, California.

Fueling the Republican surge is a flood of voter discontent verging on outrage--along with the unsettling effect on incumbents of the decennial redistricting and a flock of Democratic retirements.

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The latest evidence was provided by a New York Times/CBS News poll released last week that showed only about 20% of those surveyed approved of the job Congress is doing. And only that same small share of the sample said they believed that they could trust the government in Washington most of the time.

“Voters are frustrated with government,” said the Democratic Party’s senior campaign strategist, Tony Coelho, himself a former member of the House. “They think they pay too much and get too little back.”

But Tuesday’s anticipated results seem likely to produce even more frustration among the citizenry. The outlook is for heightened partisan warfare in Washington, where Republicans under Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and House Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia were feisty enough during the last congressional session to impede major initiatives by President Clinton.

The President’s worst nightmare has to be a Republican-controlled Senate, which would put Dole in charge of the flow of business and would install other Republicans as chairmen of Senate committees.

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“If I’m in the Clinton White House, my immediate worry is that (New York Sen.) Alfonse D’Amato is head of the Senate Banking Committee,” said Republican consultant Anthony Fabrizio.

One of the Senate’s most aggressive critics of the Whitewater affair, D’Amato would be expected to push for a further probe into the events stemming from Clinton’s Arkansas real estate investment and its connection to a failed savings and loan.

Even without a majority, Republicans in the 104th Congress will likely be well-positioned to challenge the President’s ability to dominate the national political scene.

“I think we will be able to control the political debate,” said Republican pollster William McInturff. He said he envisages the enlarged GOP cadre on Capitol Hill teaming up with conservative Democrats to form a “center-right coalition.” This alliance, McInturff theorizes, could force Clinton to choose between compromising with the conservatives--thus weakening his hold on his party’s liberal base--or vetoing legislation, which the Republicans could exploit to energize their 1996 drive for the White House.

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“Imagine the world where Republicans who voted for term limits, a balanced-budget amendment and cuts in congressional staff could wrap themselves in that package and go to the country in 1996 and say: ‘We’re the change,’ ” McInturff said.

“It will be very difficult for Clinton to get things done,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University specialist in congressional affairs, because the election results are likely to sharpen the schism between the two parties. Baker points out that the Democratic members of Congress most likely to survive Tuesday’s Republican onslaught are those from the most liberal districts, thus pushing the Democratic House contingent to the left. But the Republicans, he says, will be at least as conservative as ever, “and in no mood to bargain.”

But even in victory, the Republicans will face problems of their own. Expanded responsibility is likely to deepen fissures in their party--exposed most notably when Republican New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani backed the candidacy of Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and Los Angeles Republican Mayor Richard Riordan endorsed Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

“If Bob Dole becomes majority leader in the Senate and Newt (Gingrich) becomes de facto leader of a conservative coalition in the House, then our party will have to lead,” Fabrizio said. “But Gingrich’s goal will be to build a Republican majority in 1996, and Dole’s goal will probably be to get himself elected President.”

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In the face of their grim prospects, Democrats have taken what comfort they can from the belief that an even worse disaster has been averted. They cite the apparent ability of one of the party’s most revered liberal icons, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and a number of lesser known House incumbents to rise out of the political graves dug by their Republican challengers.

Some Democrats attributed this modest comeback to the counter-thrust launched by the national party against the Republican “contract with America,” a 10-point Reaganesque agenda for cutting taxes, trimming social programs and beefing up the military. In a $2-million ad campaign, the Democrats charged that the contract boiled down to huge tax cuts for the rich, massive new federal budget deficits and deep cuts in Medicare and other benefits.

“We blunted it and destroyed its credibility,” Coelho said. But Republicans contend that all the Democratic attention paid to the contract helped them carry out their strategy of nationalizing the campaign.

Some analysts suggest that Clinton deserves some credit for the improvement the Democrats have been able to make in their condition. He hit the campaign trail, hoping to use the prestige he gained from his recent foreign policy successes to energize loyal Democrats--whose apathy about this election, party strategists fear, may keep them from the polls.

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“He revved up the troops here just as he revved up the troops in Kuwait,” said Pat Ewing, campaign manager for Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who is battling an aggressive Republican challenger.

But Republicans scoffed at the idea that Clinton, whom they have made a prime target of their own campaigns, could aid any of his party’s beleaguered candidates. “In Ohio and Pennsylvania, our polls showed he didn’t move the races at all,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. “And when he says: ‘We’ve got to keep going in the direction we’ve been going,’ he is telling people just what they don’t want to hear.”

Other analysts attributed the Democratic comeback to the inherent advantages of incumbency, particularly money. A recent Common Cause analysis showed that through Sept. 30, House members had raised five times as much money as their opponents. “The sheer weight of money wears down challengers,” McInturff said.

These and other factors will help determine the outcome of scores of close races around the country. Here is a brief look at some of the major contests at the national and state level:

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The Senate

The Democrats started off with huge numerical disadvantages. Of the 35 seats being contested, 22 are held by Democrats, compared with only 13 by Republicans. And six of the Democratic seats are open because of retirement, compared with only three Republican open seats.

Republicans claim to be reasonably certain of winning all six of the Democratic open seats--in Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee, Maine and Ohio. That means they would need to gain only one more seat to obtain a majority. And they believe that they can do that by toppling at least one of three particularly vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Wofford in Pennsylvania, who faces Rep. Rick Santorum; Jim Sasser in Tennessee, who is up against political newcomer Bill Frist, a surgeon, and Charles S. Robb in Virginia, who is competing against Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North.

Republicans consider three other Democratic Senate incumbents to be only a bit less vulnerable. New Jersey’s Frank R. Lautenberg is being hammered because of a last-minute negative ad charging that his Republican foe, Chuck Haytaian, has “racist” support. And California’s Feinstein has been fighting hard against her Republican challenger, Rep. Mike Huffington (D-Santa Barbara). In New Mexico, Republicans cite late polls that indicate Jeff Bingaman is losing ground to GOP challenger Colin R. McMillan.

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To hold the Senate, the Democrats probably need to win at least one or two Republican seats. Their best chance may be in Minnesota, where Ann Wynia, a former legislator, is in a close contest with Republican Rod Grams. They also claim to have hopes of unseating Republican incumbents in Washington, where Seattle City Councilman Ron Sims is challenging Sen. Slade Gorton; and in Vermont, where state Sen. Jan Backus has been gaining ground on Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords.

The House

Once again, political arithmetic helps explain why the Democrats are in trouble. Not only do they have more seats to lose, but of the 52 open seats resulting from retirements and members seeking other offices, 31 are held by Democrats, compared with only 21 for Republicans. What’s more, a poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, based on interviews with nearly 1,500 registered voters last Thursday through Saturday, suggests that Republican House candidates would get 52% of the popular vote to 48% for Democrats, which would translate into a hefty Republican gain.

Still, only one prominent Republican--New York Rep. Bill Paxon, chairman of the House GOP campaign committee--is publicly predicting that the party will win the 40 or more seats needed to gain control. His forecast is based on polls that show Republicans are leading or are within the poll’s margin of error against 37 Democratic incumbents and in 20 open-seat races. Among the incumbents on Paxon’s endangered list, and nearly everyone else’s, is House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington state, struggling to fend off the challenge of Republican George Nethercutt. Paxon claims no Republican incumbent is behind anywhere in the country.

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But Democrats dispute Paxon’s claims and contend that they can score enough victories against Republican incumbents and in open-seat districts to hold the GOP gain to around 30.

One reason Democrats are having difficulty in defeating Republican incumbents at a time when the anti-incumbent feeling is supposedly high is that “there are not many good Democratic challengers,” said Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates.

And for this, some analysts say, the President is partly to blame.

Governors

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The Democrats are also losing the numbers game here. Of the 36 governorships up for grabs, 21 are now held by Democrats, 14 by Republicans and one, Connecticut, by an independent. The Democratic outlook in the big states has been brightened by the recent gains of New York’s Cuomo against GOP lawmaker George Pataki, Texas Gov. Ann Richards against former President George Bush’s son George W. Bush, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles against another Bush son, Jeb. But in all these races, the outcome remains in doubt.

Another big state in which Democrats have reason for concern is Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. Mark Singel is neck and neck with his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Ridge.

Democrats say their best chances for taking governorships away from Republicans are in Iowa and Maine.

Party Shifts

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The party controlling the White House has lost ground in every midterm election since 1934. In the last 40 years, losses in the House during elections falling in the middle of a President’s first term have ranged from a low of four seats in 1962 to a high of 26 in 1982. In the Senate, the changes have ranged from a pickup of four seats in 1962 to a loss of 3 in 1978.

Party shifts in first term off-year elections

HOUSE SENATE Democrat Republican Democrat Republican Eisenhower (R) 1954 215 219 46 49 1955 232 203 48 47 +17 -16 +2 -2 Kennedy (D) 1962 263 174 64 36 1963 258 176 68 32 -4 +2 +4 -4 Nixon (R) 1970 243 187 57 43 1971 254 180 54 45 +11 -7 -2 +2 Carter (D) 1978 287 143 62 38 1979 276 157 59 41 -11 +11 -3 +3 Reagan (R) 1982 241 192 46 54 1983 269 166 46 54 +26 -26 +0 +0 Bush (R) 1990 258 175 55 45 1991 267 167 56 44 +9 -8 +1 -1


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