The 2001 Congress will likely be divided down the middle
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Gridlock, deadlock and brinkmanship are the likely outcomes of the 2000 congressional elections. While Senate and House races are notoriously volatile and seats can swing one way or the other in a matter of hours, the likely result of November's legislative elections will be a narrow--very narrow--Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic win in the House.
The Senate features 14 close races (out of 34), any of which could go either way. Democrats hold only four of these contested seats while the GOP holds 10. This math alone indicates the greater vulnerability of the Republicans as Election Day approaches.
Before the first ballot is counted in the Senate races, the Republicans have suffered four major setbacks:
1. Republican Senator Paul Coverdell of Georgia died this summer, putting a strong GOP seat in play. With a Democratic governor, the interim Senate appointment went to popular former Governor Zell Miller, who is likely to win the seat in his own right in November. As a result, a sure Republican seat will likely go Democratic.
2. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided not to fight Hillary Clinton for the seat being vacated by Democrat Pat Moynihan in the Empire State. Congressman Rick Lazio, the GOP candidate, may yet win, but he is not the candidate Giuliani would have been.
3. New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman took herself out of the running for the seat vacated by Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Congressman Bob Franks will be a weaker candidate in the fall elections.
4. Florida Senator Connie Mack decided to retire, putting a safe GOP seat into play in the November election.
Coming off these adverse developments, the GOP hold on the Senate is more tenuous than any would have felt possible earlier in the political season.
Six seats now controlled by the Republicans are likely to go Democratic. Here's the rundown (with key information provided by www.politicalinsider.com, my favorite source for this kind of information). These are, in my view:
Congressman Bill McCollum is running against Democratic State Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson to fill the vacancy created by Connie Mack's retirement. McCollum came to national attention in the Clinton impeachment trial as one of the House managers pressing to remove the president. The unpopularity of the impeachment process and McCollum's generally conservative record contrast with the populist, pro-consumer reputation of centrist Nelson. Even though George W. Bush will likely carry Florida, give the edge here to Nelson.
Republican Lincoln Chafee, who after his father's death last October was appointed to fill his seat in the Senate, is trying to hold on against an expected strong Democratic challenge from either Representative Bob Weygand or former Lieutenant Governor Richard A. Licht. Rhode Island is God's gift to the Democratic Party. It's the most Democratic state in America, and it's unlikely that Chafee can hold on.
GOP Senator Spencer Abraham--a former political consultant--is struggling to defeat a fierce challenge from popular Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow. Abraham has consistently lagged below 50 percent of the vote, a usual sign of an incumbent in trouble. With Al Gore likely to carry Michigan, this seat may well change hands.
Senator Rod Grams may have the fight of his life against one of four Democratic challengers. Grams's poll numbers have never looked very good, and his most likely opponent--Mark Dayton--is very well funded. Since Grams has never really taken root in this highly liberal and Democratic state, he may well lose this Election Day.
In a local version of an Ali-Frazier fight, the popular Democratic Governor Thomas R. Carper is opposing the popular GOP Senator William V. Roth Jr. Roth has been in the Senate forever. His fame dates from the Kemp-Roth tax cut of the early Reagan years. But Carper looks too powerful to beat, so Delaware will likely go Democratic.
Zell Miller (disclaimer: a former client of mine) will almost certainly defeat former GOP Senator Mack Mattingly, so the state will also switch to the Democrats this fall. A six-seat gain would usually be enough to topple the GOP from power in the Senate. Before Coverdell's death, the Republicans had a 55-45 margin in the body. A switch of six seats would give the Democrats a 51-49 majority.
But--two states with Democratic senators are likely to go Republican:
Highly popular former GOP Governor George Allen faces longtime incumbent Democrat Charles S. Robb, whose pedigree goes back to his marriage to Lyndon Johnson's daughter 30 years ago. Robb is vulnerable and Allen has led in most early polls. Virginia, where Bush will undoubtedly win, will probably go Republican for the Senate.
The retirement of Democratic Senator Richard Bryan opens a seat whose most likely heir will be former GOP Congressman John Ensign. In a state where a congressman represents half of the population, a House seat is a huge plus in a statewide election. Give the edge here to the GOP.
If the Democrats pick up six seats and the GOP gains two, the Republicans can hang on for a 51-49 seat victory.
But two races are really far too close to call--New York, where Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio are locked in a seesaw battle for a formerly Democratic seat, and Missouri, where GOP Senator John D. Ashcroft faces a tough challenge from Governor Mel Carnahan. Either seat is anyone's guess. Mine is that Clinton and Ashcroft both will win, and there will be no change in party control in either state.
Oddly, the Democrats may need 51 seats to win control of the Senate, even if Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are elected. Normally, if the election produces a 50-50 tie, the vice president will break it for his own party, in this case, giving the Democrats control. But Lieberman is also running for reelection in Connecticut. Should he win as vice president, he will, of course, resign the Senate seat. His resignation would pave the way for Connecticut's Republican governor, John Rowland, to name a GOP replacement to fill in for the next year.
Thus, if the Democrats win 50 seats, they cannot use Lieberman to break the tie, since his seat will have gone Republican and the body will again be in GOP hands. So the Republicans need 50 seats to win control while the Democrats need 51! (If Lieberman changes his mind and gives up the Senate seat before Election Day, a Democrat could, of course, win the election to replace him. Then the Democrats could win control with 50 seats if Gore wins).
The House is much easier to predict. Close to 40 seats are vacant in the 2000 election, the vast bulk of them now held by Republicans. Just the normal process of attrition makes it very likely that the Democrats will win control of the House in November. Incumbents are notoriously hard to beat in House elections. It's easier to defeat a senator than a congressman. House members can so saturate their small districts with personal attention, mail, phone calls, and constituent services that it is hard for any challenger to gain traction. Traditionally, any time the House has changed hands, it has been due to retirements among incumbents. In 1992 and 1994, for example, a horde of Democratic congressmen left office, embarrassed by bounced checks drawn on the House bank and lured by the prospect of holding on to their campaign funds as personal income if they left office.
This time, it is the Republicans' turn to retire. Frustrated by their failure to turn around the national agenda in the aftermath of their 1994 victory, dozens of GOP congressmen have left their seats to return to civilian life. The resulting prospect is very bright for the Democrats.
Should Bush maintain a lead in the presidential race, it will, oddly, make a Democratic victory in the House more likely. Surveys indicate that a plurality of voters want a Democratic Congress if there is to be a GOP president (and the other way around as well). Fearful of GOP positions on abortion and gun control, most voters want a Democratic check and balance on a Republican president. Obviously, a GOP landslide victory for Bush would enhance Republican chances in the House. But a narrow Bush win--the most likely scenario at this time--may reinforce voter bias toward a Democratic House.
The likely outcome--a split decision. Right down the middle.
Dick Morris is a former advisor to President Clinton and Mexico's newly elected president Vicente Fox. He is founder of Vote.com, a Web site on which people may express their views on important issues.