Senate Elections --
Still Anybody's Call
By Alan Greenblatt and Robert Marshall Wells/Congressional Quarterly
WASHINGTON (CQ, Oct. 23) -- Battles for Senate seats are less affected by the national trends that decide presidential contests and influence House race outcomes. They are to a large extent idiosyncratic, determined by circumstances unique to each.
Most Senate races are dominated by television advertising, so candidates establish their own identities in the mind of the electorate, identities that are not determined solely by party.
"In a Senate race, the people who are running are very clear that one of their prime tasks is to establish an identity independent of the parties," said Oregon State University political scientist Bill Lunch. "If you have a strong personal image, you can overcome the party's problems."
With Republicans currently holding a 53-47 advantage, Democrats need only a net gain of three seats to win effective control of the Senate, assuming Vice President Al Gore is re-elected.
But despite the party's apparent lead in the presidential race, and the assumption of most observers that Democrats are likely to gain seats in the House, if not control of the chamber itself, the Senate remains this year's wild card.
Given the record number of resignations, an unusual number of open-seat races are in play, along with several contests involving incumbents that are still too close to call.
With approximately half of the 34 Senate races still in contention, the only apparently safe prediction is to say that neither party is likely to see all the close races fall its way.
"It's still not clear whether Republicans will retain control of the Senate," said James Moore, a political scientist at the University of Portland in Oregon. "It's...going to be close."
Republicans began the cycle confident in their ability to expand their Senate majority. They were certain that they would pick up the lion's share of the seats being vacated by Democrats, particularly the four in the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana).
But events that could not be predicted by looking at national trends have renewed Democratic hopes in several states, including Louisiana.
When Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., announced his retirement after 24 years, the GOP's chance to win its first creole Senate seat since Reconstruction looked so fine that it attracted more than half a dozen Republicans to the race.
For a time during the summer, this surfeit of GOP faces threatened to split the vote and leave only Democratic candidates Mary L. Landrieu and Richard P. Ieyoub with a shot at making the runoff in November.
But state and national Republican leaders coalesced behind Republican state Rep. Louis "Woody" Jenkins in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 21 primary, catapulting him into a first-place finish with Landrieu, a former gubernatorial candidate and state treasurer, taking second place.
Republicans won a combined 55 percent of the primary vote, in which candidates of all parties appeared on the same ballot, so Jenkins appeared to be in a strong position to capture the seat -- that is, until news broke in October that one of his businesses has had nine separate liens placed on it by the Internal Revenue Service over a six-year period because of delinquent tax payments.
In the wake of these revelations and the negative press for Jenkins they generated, it now appears Landrieu could prevail in the race.
Political scientists note that presidential coattails are playing a diminishing role in determining races down the ballot, but they appear to have deteriorated the most at the Senate level. These contests have high enough profiles of their own to be shaped by the candidates' personalities, name recognition from other pursuits or issues of particular interest only to one state.
In Massachusetts, for instance, polls suggest that President Clinton may carry the state by more than 30 points.
But despite the Bay State's long tradition of supporting Democrats -- the GOP typically has to recruit a sacrificial candidate to stand against an incumbent Democrat -- two-term Democrat John Kerry is struggling for his political life against the toughest possible GOP nominee, popular two-term Gov. William F. Weld.
Kerry's attempts to link Weld to the national Republican agenda have not stuck. Weld, who is liberal on social issues, publicly distanced himself from the mainstream of his party at its August national convention, refusing to speak when he was not allowed to express his "pro-choice" views on abortion.
And so the race, seemingly immune to national forces, has become a mano-a-mano fight between two well-known and well-regarded officeholders.
"What do coattails mean if you think that the leading presidential candidate is going to win by 20 points, and yet it doesn't seem to have any victory-producing effect for a sitting senator of the president's party?" wondered Michigan State University political scientist David W. Rohde.
Despite the Democrats' apparent momentum this year, the party is defending the majority of open seats, and historical patterns suggest they will not see every one of those seats fall into their column even if Clinton wins those states by margins as large as his polling leads.
Since World War II, in years a president has been re-elected, his party has lost seats or just broken even in the Senate three times (1956, 1972 and 1984).
Even in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson was elected to a full term in a landslide and Democrats gained 37 House seats, the party had a net gain of only one Senate seat.
Some years when a sitting president has been defeated, the new president's party has gained many seats in the Senate -- such as in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's ousting of Jimmy Carter helped carry Republicans to a net gain of 12 seats. If GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole recovers in time to score an upset victory, that momentum would likely carry in several new GOP senators. But if Dole loses, his party's Senate nominees are more likely to be swimming on their own.
Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer is swimming furiously against certain GOP tides in his race for the New Jersey seat opened by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. Clinton has maintained a wide lead in statewide polls. And Zimmer's opponent, Democratic Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, is attempting to link the moderate Republican with the conservative agenda of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Both candidates are seeking to pin "extremist" labels on the other while implying that his opponent has ties to organized crime. The race, which is playing out largely without reference to big national questions, may prove to be the most expensive in the country.
Since Senate candidates are mostly autonomous, dependent more on their own ability to raise money than party apparatus to get out their message, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., thought he had a great idea in 1995.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Nebraskan actively sought to recruit millionaires who could fund their own races. This would lend them instant credibility and, more importantly, keep them from draining party resources.
But as the Senate races enter the home stretch, only one of Kerrey's millionaires, Tom Bruggere of Oregon, is still running neck-and-neck with his opponent, Republican Gordon Smith (who is also a millionaire).
Several others are trailing, a couple failed even to win their primaries, and one, Oklahoma sports attorney James Sears Bryant, dropped out early, citing, of all things, a lack of funds.
Democrats are a decided minority in Idaho, but Walt Minnick, the former CEO of a wood products firm in Boise, appears to have an outside chance of unseating GOP Sen. Larry E. Craig.
Minnick's chances are turning mostly on a single issue of statewide importance (nuclear waste disposal), illustrating again the autonomous nature of individual Senate contests. (Story, 1996 Weekly Report p. 2960)
Another millionaire Democratic candidate failed to make headway with his money but suddenly saw daylight thanks to an error by his opponent. Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who earned an estimated $150 million in the cellular phone business, began his first bid for public office on a positive note, stressing his interest in high-tech education as the road to future prosperity.
But when that message failed to put a dent in three-term GOP Sen. John Warner's big lead, Mark Warner began an airwaves assault on the senator, linking him to unpopular spending reductions made or sought by the Republican Congress. That looks like a strategy that will pay dividends in many House races, but after months of repetition and millions of dollars, 20 percentage points still separated the two Warners in major statewide polls.
John Warner's independence from some elements of the GOP has been firmly established in the public mind. He even had to weather a primary challenge from those who questioned his party loyalty after the refused to support some GOP nominees for statewide office in 1993 and 1994. But then the senator's campaign aired an ad showing Mark Warner shaking hands with former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, while Clinton stood by. The ad was meant to associate Mark Warner with "the most liberal Democratic politicians." But it was soon discovered that the picture was a fake, and that Mark Warner's face had been substituted for that of Virginia's Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb.
John Warner promptly fired the ad maker and apologized, but the bad publicity resonated for days.
"Circumstances can change a lot depending on local factors," said University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham. "Senate elections have always tended to be more candidate-dominated than House elections."
In Wyoming, a traditional Republican bastion, Democratic Senate nominee Kathy Karpan is holding her own against conservative GOP state Sen. Mike Enzi in the battle to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson.
Though she lost as the nominee for governor in 1994, Karpan is about as appealing a candidate as Wyoming Democrats could recruit for a statewide race. A former two-term secretary of state, she has staked out moderate positions on such issues as gun control and land use. Like GOP incumbent Simpson, Karpan supports abortion rights; Enzi does not.
With higher name recognition than her opponent, Karpan could achieve an upset victory in a conservative state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in three decades.
Because Senate seats come up before voters only every six years, issues that have left the national radar screen still can carry a wallop.
"To the extent that you have personalization of a race, the personalization can insulate a member, but it can also be hurtful" said Lunch. "Some members of the Senate have been done in by a single incident."
Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., started the cycle as a heavy favorite to win a second term. But a vote from the past has reached out to bite him. Smith is under fire from his Democratic challenger, former Rep. Dick Swett, for supporting a congressional pay raise back in 1991. Smith now looks to be in a fight to save his political career.
The past is also being held against some Democratic candidates. In Illinois, Rep. Richard J. Durbin looked to have a major advantage in the contest to succeed retiring two-term Democratic Sen. Paul Simon: His GOP opponent, state Rep. Al Salvi, is a staunchly conservative political upstart who upset a more established and moderate Republican in the March primary.
But Salvi has stayed in the race by hammering Durbin on his past House votes for tax increases, his acceptance of a congressional pay raise and his handful of overdrafts at the now-defunct House bank.
© 1996, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.