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Control of House, Senate at stake in November

Neither party seen likely to win decisive majority

Dennis Hastert
Political analysts say the Democrats will have a tough time retaking the House back from the GOP, led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert.  

By Douglas S. Wood

(CNN) -- Control of the narrowly divided House and Senate is at stake in the 2002 midterm elections, but political analysts say voters are unlikely to give either party a decisive advantage.

CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider says the House and Senate will continue to hold slim majorities after the November 5 balloting. The election simply will determine which party will be in control.

"You could end up with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate," Schneider said. "That could happen, but it won't be a very big margin. We're not seeing any real tilt in the landscape."

In the House, Democrats need to pick up six seats to gain control. But Charles Cook -- publisher of the Cook Political Report, a newsletter that tracks House and Senate races -- said that is unlikely to happen.

Unlike previous elections that followed congressional redistricting, Cook says, there are only two dozen competitive House races this fall. Democrats would need to win at least 75 percent of those to get back control of the House.

"It's a pretty steep incline for the Democrats," Cook said. He gave Democrats a 30 to 40 percent chance of winning back the House.

He pointed to California, the state with the most congressional seats. Of the 53 seats, he says, only one is truly competitive: the race to win the 18th District. Democratic Rep. Gary Condit currently holds the seat, but he lost in the primary to a challenger after he became embroiled in the disappearance of former Washington intern Chandra Levy.

In Texas' 32 districts, Cook said there are "maybe two" competitive races and only one competitive race among Illinois' 17 seats.

"How does anybody score a net gain of a half-dozen seats when there's so few targets and pretty much balance in terms of vulnerability?" Cook said. "It's awfully hard."

Currently, there are 223 Republicans, 210 Democrats and one independent in the House.

Cynthia McKinney
Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney became the eighth House incumbent to lose a primary election when challenger Denise Majette overwhelmingly defeated her in the August 20 primary.  

Redistricting also played less of a role, because many states did not redraw congressional districts that threatened House incumbents. So fewer of them retired, Cook said. Improved technology has allowed politicians in state legislatures to redraw districts with greater accuracy, allowing politicians to protect incumbents -- especially in states that have leaders in Washington.

In some states, redistricting was a partisan exercise. Michigan's GOP-controlled legislature placed Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Lynn Rivers in the same district. Dingell, the longest serving member of the House, beat Rivers in the August 6 primary and he is unopposed in the general election.

In Georgia, the Democratic state Legislature redrew Congressional districts so that GOP Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder were in the same district. Linder easily beat Barr in the August 20 primary and faces token Democratic opposition in the heavily Republican district.

Besides Condit, Barr and Rivers, other House incumbents who lost primaries this year include Democratic Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Earl Hilliard of Alabama, Frank Mascara of Pennsylvania, Tom Sawyer of Ohio, and GOP Rep. Brian Kerns of Indiana. Like Barr and Rivers, Mascara and Kerns lost to fellow incumbents after redistricting put them in the same district.

Senate 'too close to call'

But for most voters this year, Schneider said there isn't a House election. That's because the districts are safe for incumbents, which he called "odd and undemocratic."

"In a democracy, the voters are supposed to choose the candidates," Schneider said. "In redistricting, the candidates choose the voters, and what they've done is choose voters that make them as safe as possible."

Tom Daschle
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle hopes the Democrats will pick up additional seats in November and improve their razor-thin majority.  

The Senate, where the Democrats currently have a one-vote majority, is a different story. Cook says it's too close to call due to a number of competitive races.

"We just think it's going to be a photo finish," he said.

Schneider said there are close Senate races in South Dakota, Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa, while Democrats are vulnerable in Georgia and Louisiana. He cited electoral politics in the Midwestern states as contributing to the passage of the $190 billion farm bill this spring.

"There is a farm bill because those races are high-profile races, and both parties did not want to alienate the farm vote or they would not ever control the Senate for a long time," he said.

There are currently 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent in the Senate.

Turnover expected in governor's races

However, Cook and Schneider say there is likely to be some turnover in the control of governor's offices. There are 36 governors up for re-election, the majority of them Republicans.

"That's what most Americans consider the most important thing this year, because governors run things," Schneider said. "Members of Congress run their mouths. Governors run your state. They make important decisions."

Cook and Schneider say Democrats are likely to benefit from timing in the gubernatorial races. Democrats lost a number of governor's races in the 1994 elections and many of those Republicans were re-elected in 1998. But now, many of those Republican governors are term-limited and cannot run again.

"Just by the turn of the calendar, with so many open Republican-controlled governorships, the Democrats are very likely to make gains," Schneider said.

Cook also noted that Republicans also have a number of strong, popular governors who aren't running or can't run for re-election, and that has left a void in terms of finding good candidates.

"It's just hard for them (GOP) to stay up at those levels," he said.

Country remains politically divided

In Schneider's view, part of the reason the election is unlikely to change much is because the country is still split politically, much as it was after the divisive 2000 presidential election.

The country is "divided right down the middle," he said, mainly over domestic issues like Medicare, Social Security and "values" issues like abortion.

"All we can say at this point ... is that nothing has happened yet that has tilted the playing field strongly in one direction. Nothing," Schneider said. "Things, politically, look more or less the way they did on November 7, 2000, which is remarkable given what's happened in the country -- particularly last September."

Schneider say the playing field may look different once the majority of state primaries are completed in September.

Of the war on terrorism, Schneider said voters seem to view it as above politics.

"Bush and the war on terrorism are above politics," he said. "Politics is about other things, things about which Americans are still divided."

Schneider also said that in the aftermath of September 11, Bush has strong approval ratings, and approval ratings of government and Congress hit record highs: "All of which points to an election in which you don't see a huge amount of change," he said.

But Schneider also said that a presidential election year "is the main event in American politics.

"A mid-term election is kind of a sideshow," he said. "It's a circus with no main event and no center ring."




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