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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

The current state of Election '98: Senate, house, governors

By Stuart Rothenberg/CNN's Political Analyst

Senate Overview






Ballot Measures

State Legislatures

While the Republicans hold a 55-45 seat advantage in the United States Senate going into the November elections, 18 Democratic seats and only 16 GOP Senate seats are up this year.

Of those 34 incumbents, five senators -- three Democrats and two Republicans -- are retiring. Two years ago, by contrast, 13 senators chose not to seek re-election. This year's elections mark the fourth straight cycle when more Democrats than Republicans retired from the Senate.

Historically, the party controlling the White House loses Senate seats in midterm elections. But the statistical relationship is not nearly so great as it is with House elections. While the party controlling the presidency has gained House seats in only one midterm this century (1934), the president's party has gained Senate seats in three of the past nine midterms (1962, 1970 and 1982).

Normally, there is a far greater net change in the House (which has more than four times the membership of the Senate), but in 1986, the Republicans lost just 5 seats in the House elections compared to a whopping eight Senate seats. The Democrats lost eight Senate seats in the 1994 midterm balloting.

About half of the 34 Senate seats up this year are unlikely to see serious competition. In some cases, that's because the state is so partisan that opposition seems fruitless (e.g., Republican Don Nickles in Oklahoma and Barbara Mikulski in Maryland). In other states, the fund-raising strength or political appeal of the incumbent (e.g., Republican Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Democrat John Breaux in Louisiana) deterred potentially strong opponents.

Nine Democratic Senate seats are at some level of risk, while six GOP seats are potentially vulnerable to takeover. In general, the Democrats' seats are at greater risk, giving the Republicans much greater opportunity to add to their existing margin.

Two Senate seats are likely to change hands. In Indiana, the retirement of Dan Coats (R) will almost certainly result in the election of former governor Evan Bayh (D) to that seat. And in neighboring Ohio, Gov. George Voinovich's candidacy gives the Republicans an excellent opportunity to win the seat of retiring Democrat John Glenn.

Only two other GOP Senate seats appear at serious risk: Al D'Amato in New York and Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina. But five Democratic seats are at least as vulnerable as those two: Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, Harry Reid in Nevada, Barbara Boxer in California, Fritz Hollings in South Carolina, and retiring Sen. Wendell Ford's seat in Kentucky.

In Missouri, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R) has drawn a formidable opponent, state Attorney General Jay Nixon (D), who has had a rocky first few months. And GOP incumbents in Georgia (Paul Coverdell) and Colorado (party-switcher Ben Nighthorse Campbell) are worth watching, though their opponents are less than intimidating.

The two longer-shot GOP targets are Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) in Washington. Both are freshmen, and both are likely to face aggressive GOP campaigners. Wisconsin is more likely to emerge as a real GOP opportunity.

The overall status-quo environment that benefited Republican and Democratic incumbents has shifted a bit with the president's admission that he lied to the American public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and Independent Counsel Ken Starr's subsequent referral of the case to Capitol Hill. That should help GOP candidates, particularly in more conservative and Republican-leaning states.

With polling showing Republicans well-positioned to pick up Illinois, and with GOP challengers strengthening in South Carolina, Nevada and California, some Republican insiders are talking about the party making a run at 60 seats (a five-seat gain), which would give the GOP at least a theoretical ability to break Democratic filibusters.

House Overview

The Republicans go into the fall midterm elections holding 228 seats, while the Democrats hold 206 seats and there is one Independent.

To take control of the House, the Democrats would need to gain 11 seats from the Republicans, assuming that Independent Bernie Sanders votes with the Democrats to organize the House, as he has in the past.

Any Democratic gain would run counter to established historical trends. The president's party has gained seats only once in midterm elections since the Civil War, in 1934, and losses by the party holding the White House have tended to be particularly large in the second midterm election of a two-term presidency (the so-called "six-year itch" election).

While "six-year itch" outcomes -- in 1938, 1958, 1966 and 1974, for example -- can be explained by specific political and economic factors, the midterm trend is indisputable and is normally explained in two ways.

First, weak House members who were dragged into Congress on the president's coattails are unable to survive without the president at the top of the ticket, and therefore are defeated two years later. And second, the greater enthusiasm on the part of the president's critics leads to higher turnout among partisans of the party that does not control the White House. The resulting change in the makeup of the electorate contributes to the loss of seats by the party that won the White House two years earlier.

But unlike big presidential winners, Bill Clinton did not drag many weak Democrats into the House in either 1992 (his party actually lost House seats) or 1996 (when his party gained just nine House seats), and the huge Republican gain of 52 House seats four years ago wiped out most of the potentially vulnerable House Democrats. Because of that, there are fewer GOP midterm opportunities than there ordinarily might be.

Unlike the last few election cycles, voters seem content with the state of the economy and the direction of the country, and there is far less anti-Washington, anti-politician sentiment among the public than there was in 1992, 1994 or 1996. That should be good news for incumbents of both parties, who can run on their accomplishments rather than spend time defending their incumbency.

Many of the partisan turnovers in the past few elections have occurred in open seats, and the total number of retirements (33) is down substantially from 1996 (49 retirements), 1994 (50 retirements) and 1992 (65 retirements). In each of the last three cycles, far more Democrats than Republicans retired from the House, but this year the numbers are almost identical (17 Democrats, 16 Republicans).

Consistently low turnout in early primaries confirms the view of most voting analysts that the public is not particularly interested in politics these days and that turnout will be low in November.

All of these elements suggest a status-quo election with incumbents winning and races fought more along local rather than national lines. But the president's personal problems -- especially when combined with foreign policy problems and a fluctuating stock market that could shake consumer confidence -- could well change that outlook dramatically, boosting turnout among the president's critics, depressing it among Clinton's supporters and encouraging some swing voters to send a message of disapproval to the White House. If that happens, a status-quo election could quickly turn into gains for the GOP.

Gubernatorial Elections

With Republican governors sitting in 24 of the 36 states with gubernatorial elections this year, the Democrats would seem to have an excellent opportunity to make gains in governorships. But looks can be deceiving, and the Democrats, who have 11 governors up this year, could actually lose ground to the GOP.

The same economy that is helping Bill Clinton's job approval ratings is bolstering the GOP's chances for the fall. Many states have been able to pass tax cuts, and GOP governors are taking advantage of progress on welfare reform and controlling crime as they seek re-election.

In addition, Democratic retirements in a number of Southern and Western states have given the GOP terrific opportunities. True, the Democrats have their own opportunities (particularly in the Midwest) where Republican incumbents are retiring, but their chances simply aren't as good as are the Republicans' where Democrats are retiring (such as in Florida, Nebraska, Nevada and Colorado).

A healthy 18 Republican governors are seeking re-election, while just six of this cycle's 11 Democratic governors are vying for another term. Only a handful of incumbent governors seeking re-election appear to be in real trouble.

While House and Senate races could be affected by the president's personal problems, gubernatorial races are most typically decided on local issues. However, depressed Democratic turnout resulting from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal could impact close gubernatorial races, adding to potential Democratic woes.

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