Senate, governors' races highlight election
No single issue dominates political landscape
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After a final flurry of campaign stops, ads and a high-profile last day debate in Minnesota, voters are finally having their say in a midterm election that could shift the balance of power in Congress.
Control of the Senate is uncertain, there is the prospect of some seats changing hands in the House and there are several neck-in-neck gubernatorial races -- contests whose outcomes could determine future presidential candidates.
For President Bush, the aftermath of this election is not likely to alter his agenda -- with the possible and notable exception of nominating judicial nominees -- but it could enhance, or hurt, his reputation as a leader within the Republican Party.
Bush has invested considerably in several races, stumping for GOP candidates in tight races in, among other states, South Dakota, Minnesota, Texas and Missouri, and he has put his prestige on the line in the process.
"I think that if he doesn't do well with the high-profile races where he's appearing, it could hurt him," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
Having said that, Thurber cautioned that this midterm election should not be viewed as a referendum on Bush's leadership in the war against terrorism -- to the chagrin of Republicans -- nor is it shaping up to be a commentary by voters on the economy -- to the disappointment of Democrats.
Indeed, most political analysts say there is no common, national theme to the election, and individual races appear to hinge on local issues and personalities.
And for all the fierce 11th-hour campaigning going into Tuesday, most analysts also predict the outcome won't be all that different from the current political landscape: Neither party will have a significant majority in Congress, and both the House and Senate will remain closely divided.
"I think the outcome is going to be pretty close to what we have now," said Stephen Hess, a presidential and congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Until the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash last month, Democrats held a one-seat advantage in the Senate, and Republicans hold a six-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
The numbers alone suggest that Republicans might have better luck in winning control of the Senate than Democrats do in winning a majority in the House.
But Republicans were not playing up expectations, noting the tightness of several races.
"He who looks in the crystal ball ends up eating glass," said Mary Matalin, a White House adviser, told CNN. "They're way, way close."
GOP control of the Senate would be significant for Bush in one sense: The president would likely have better luck in getting the nominees he wants on the federal bench.
But a simple majority in the Senate is not as powerful as it might seem. The magic number for significant legislative fights in the Senate is 60, the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster.
For that reason, most analysts say the current climate of divided government will likely continue after Tuesday's election. In the long term, the gubernatorial races -- where there are 20 open seats -- may have greater political resonance.
What is so special about governors? Consider where several of the nation's recent presidents have come from. Bush was governor of Texas, Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Reagan was governor of California.
"Those that are elected on Tuesday, we're likely to have as presidential candidates six and 10 years from now," Hess said.
That prospect has political analysts and party activists intensely interested in Tuesday's election, but polls indicate much of the public remains disengaged from the political debate.
Voting experts predict 40 percent or less of registered voters will cast ballots Tuesday.
Hess said the absence of an overriding issue -- even the prospect of war with Iraq or the still sluggish economy -- makes it difficult for either party to claim a clear advantage going into the election.
"I gather that there are drifts in different races," Hess said. "I don't see any great breeze bowing all the races in any one direction."