Clinton's crisis: Why the midterms matter
Impeachment isn't the godsend the G.O.P. hoped for, but the election outlook is still bleak for Democrats
By Romesh Ratnesar
(Time, October 19) -- It's O.K. to admit: You couldn't care less about the midterm elections. Fewer Americans voted in the primaries this year than ever before, and polls indicate that just 35% of the electorate--another record low--plans to turn out Nov. 3. But that date still has both parties sweating. Midterm elections can produce big shifts in the congressional balance of power, and in this case, even modest gains by either party could determine the fate of Bill Clinton's presidency. But if you really want to get in on the action (and we know, you've got better things to do), then check out the states. The immediate future of American politics will be decided there this year, and it's a future that looks bleak for Democrats.
Here's why: When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, there were 28 Democratic Governors. Now there are just 17, and they cover only 25% of the country's population. With 18 G.O.P. incumbents running this year, Republicans will at worst maintain their count of 32 governorships, and probably will pick up at least three more. And they'll do it in some improbable places. In Connecticut, which has recently leaned toward Democrats, incumbent John Rowland is running 40 points ahead of Barbara Kennelly, daughter of the state's most powerful Democratic don. Colorado may elect its first Republican Governor since 1970, and in Georgia businessman Guy Millner is poised to become the first Republican in the statehouse this century. G.O.P. gubernatorial candidates look unbeatable in seven of the eight most populous and pivotal states: Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan. A Democrat has a good shot only in California, where the bland if steady Gray Davis clings to a slim lead, though Republican Dan Lungren has closed the gap in recent days.
The G.O.P.'s stranglehold on governorships in large states means that Republicans will have veto power over the drawing of legislative maps that will take place after the 2000 census. The coming redistricting could tilt the composition of the House of Representatives the G.O.P.'s way well into the next century. Fast-growing Georgia, for instance, stands to add two seats to its congressional delegation in 2000; if Millner wins this year, the G.O.P. will start plotting to carve out new districts in the state's conservative northern region.
So in the states, the 1998 elections are really about 2000. In another way too: having the governorship helps parties organize for presidential campaigns. And Americans' appetite for Republicans in the Governor's mansion may betray a hunger for a Republican in the White House--a Republican like, say, Texas Governor George W. Bush, who is expected to whip his Democratic opponent this year and, according to polls, would beat Al Gore in a head-to-head presidential race. Since his election as Governor in 1994, Bush has avoided the mistakes that doomed his father: he has learned and relearned domestic policy, moved to the center and played down issues dear to the Christian right. It's no coincidence that Bush's popular brand of moderate conservatism resembles that of another former Southern Governor. Rather than trying to beat a New Democrat, Republicans like Bush have discovered, the winning strategy is simply to become one.
The New Democrat in Chief, of course, has more immediate concerns. In the past three months, the chances of the Democrats' retaking the House have gone from plausible to zilch. The President's problems demoralized many Democratic supporters in August and September and revved up Clinton-hating conservatives. That's especially scary because of the "six-year itch": while the sitting President's party has suffered losses in every midterm save one since the Civil War, elections in the sixth year of a presidency are especially crippling. Since 1938, sixth-year elections have produced an average loss of 44 seats for the party controlling the White House. Minority leader Richard Gephardt's expectations for the elections are revealingly modest. "We have to hold our own," he says.
A hefty haul for Republicans could help ensure impeachment. In July, when Speaker Newt Gingrich began privately predicting that his party would win 21 House seats--bringing his majority up to 32--even his staff laughed; it seems only marginally boastful now. As the impeachment debate was going on last week, Representative John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, told TIME he expects a gain of 10 to 15 seats, then added, "It's starting to feel better than 10 to 15...and if it goes up, it goes from 15 to 30." But the looming impeachment isn't the boon Republicans had expected. The party's base of conservative voters is "15 times more likely to vote" because of the scandal, but they would have voted anyway. Many Republicans who need moderates to win are not using the scandal explicitly in their campaigns; some even consider it a third rail. "It would backfire if we used it," says Cynthia Bergman, spokeswoman for Oregon House hopeful Molly Bordonaro. "Voters would view it as negative campaigning." In Mississippi's racially divided Fourth District, Republican Delbert Hosemann first withheld judgment of Clinton, then switched course, calling for resignation and demanding his opponent say "whose team he's on." Now, slipping in the polls, Hosemann has backed off again. "I don't want to be elected because of what Bill Clinton did," he says.
Ironically, it is Democrats who now think they can capitalize on impeachment by appealing to potential voters turned off by the scandal and motivated to end it by showing up at the polls. "This is turning against the Republicans," a senior House Democrat said last week, adjuring members to vote against the G.O.P. impeachment plan. Gephardt is pushing Democrats to stay on the message that "if you want two more years of investigations, vote for them." And a handful of Democrats have already picked up steam by standing against G.O.P. overzealousness. In New York, Representative Charles Schumer has pulled into a dead heat with Alfonse D'Amato in his bid to unseat the Senator. In this overwhelmingly pro-Clinton state, argues a Democratic strategist, the question of which man voters want to have sitting in judgment of Clinton could actually mean "a couple of points" for Schumer. D'Amato may be feeling the heat: some of his backers will launch a tax-exempt advertising campaign this week to "educate" New York voters about Schumer's repeated absences from Judiciary Committee votes.
For most Democratic candidates in the Senate, however, the boost the scandal could give them is still elusive. It has served mainly to underline weak incumbents' shortcomings. California's Barbara Boxer and Illinois' Carol Moseley-Braun--both elected in 1992's watershed year for women--are likely to lose for failing to shake their reputations as ineffective legislators. As a result, Republican strategists are predicting the party will increase its numbers from 55 to 60--and possibly more, if G.O.P. challengers can eke out wins in close races in Wisconsin, Nevada, Washington and South Carolina, and if Republican incumbents can hold on in New York and North Carolina. A G.O.P. bump to 60 seats would be historic--the most Republican Senators since 1906--but short of a death blow to Clinton. It takes 67 votes to approve impeachment.
Still, the Democrats seem to face chronic decline. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, there were 259 Democrats in the House; in the next
Congress there will probably be fewer than 200. There were 58 Democratic Senators; that number could be below 40 after Nov. 3. Republican dominance in the states has all but secured a G.O.P. majority in Congress for at least a decade, and a Clinton-style Republican Governor named Bush is front running in the next presidential campaign. By this time two years from now, Democrats may only be starting to comprehend the damage the Clinton presidency has wrought.
--Reported by Ann Blackman, James Carney and Michael Duffy/Washington
The parties are pouring resources into six hotly contested swing districts, where the Washington scandal is playing out in a variety of ways
To mollify the district's conservatives, Evans, the 16-year incumbent, voted with the G.O.P. for the inquiry last week. But other issues complicate this toss-up seat. Baker is hammering Evans for voting against free-trade measures, which many local farmers and businessmen supported. And Evans has announced he suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Incumbent Boswell too voted with the G.O.P. last week. Earlier, he had already distanced himself from the President, a sign of his fears that McKibben's well-funded campaign, which stresses trade and tax cuts, is poaching conservative voters in a fickle district. Boswell has been in horse races before. In 1996 he won re-election by just 1%.
Strickland, who toed the Democratic line in D.C. last week, remains ahead in the polls. But in every election since 1990, the district has thrown out the incumbent--and the G.O.P. wants this seat badly. Newt Gingrich has stumped for Hollister, and even Bob Dole in retirement declared his support. Still, the crucial issues are local: education and health care.
Johnson was expected to vote with the G.O.P. against Clinton, but to the pleasant surprise of his party, he opted for a time-limited inquiry. It is a calculated risk in a Catholic, conservative district where the Lewinsky matter actually matters. A recent G.O.P. poll shows the incumbent 5 points behind the well-financed Green, with 14% of voters still undecided.
The incumbent White voted with his party on the inquiry. But he's had his own marital problems: his wife recently divorced him. Meanwhile, Inslee has appealed to environmentalists and is banging White over the head for voting to weaken the Clean Water Act. A right-wing third-party candidate could also siphon crucial votes away from White.
Clinton is the silent factor here, even as G.O.P. Rep. Joseph McDade retires after 36 years. Casey, son of a popular two-term Governor, has the name recognition. But Sherwood, a deep-pocketed car dealer, is making a very good showing. If both make equal promises about bringing home the bacon, will public feeling about Clinton be the tiebreaker?
Republicans hope to boost their seats from 55 to 60. However, while some Democratic incumbents look particularly weak, others are surprisingly resilient. Watch for a number of close contests.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: October 19, 1998
Down in history
Yet another shoe to drop?
Why the midterms matter
Next up, the touchy subjects
The right connection
Right turn for peace?
The deplorable down and dirty
Public eye: Indecent proposal
The scoop: Enviro-politics