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

Stuart Rothenberg: Looking for congressional race indicators

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It's probably impossible for anyone to keep track of 435 House races and almost three dozen Senate contests. Luckily, you don't need to. Three or four dozen House races will decide who controls the next House, and fewer than half of this year's Senate races are really "in play."

But on Election Night, I'll be looking at a handful of races to give me an indication of what is happening nationally. These "indicator races" constitute a cross-section of all races, and they include incumbents of both parties and open seats.

Looking for an indication that it's going to be a rough night for House Republicans? If so, watch to see whether the Democrats win these Congressional Districts: New Jersey 3, Kentucky 1 or Pennsylvania 4.

Democrat Susan Bass-Levin is well funded in her challenge to Rep. Jim Saxton, R, and the New Jersey district can be competitive. But Saxton, a GOP moderate, has raised plenty of money and has support from many environmental groups that often back Democrats. If Saxton were to lose, it would suggest Democratic issues propelled the challenger to victory.

In eastern Kentucky's 1st Congressional District, a win by Democratic challenger Brian Roy over GOP incumbent Ed Whitfield would also signal Republican troubles, and it would give the Democrats an unexpected seat in their effort to win a majority.

Pennsylvania 4 is a Democratic open seat in the western part of the state. A working class district, it is expected to fall to Republican Melissa Hart. If Democratic incumbent Terry Van Horn holds on, it would suggest that Democratic voters are sticking with their nominees across the country.

Surprises in a number of Democratic-held seats would indicate a better than expected GOP year, so keep an eye on what happens in Pennsylvania 10 and Mississippi 4.

In Pennsylvania, Joe Hoeffel, a freshman Democrat, holds a moderate Republican district, and he is a favorite for re-election. But if Republican challenger Stewart Greenleaf upsets him, it could signal that GOP voters elsewhere are marching lockstep behind their nominees.

The same holds true for Mississippi's 4th Congressional District., a conservative district represented by moderate Democrat Ronnie Shows. If Republican challenger Dunn Lampton pulls off an upset, it could signal that rural, conservative areas around the country are going Republican.

Open seats should determine which party will control the House next Congress, which is why Michigan 8, New Jersey 7, Washington 2 and New York 2 -- all races too close to call -- are so important.

Democrat Debbie Stabenow is giving up the Michigan seat, while Republicans now represent the other three. If Republicans sweep three or all four, the Democrats certainly won't re-take the House. But if the Democrats win at least three, they are on track to win at least 218 seats.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, few Democratic incumbents were under the gun. But that's no longer true. If the GOP can steal even as few as three seats currently held by Democratic incumbents seeking re-election, it is unlikely that House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, will become the next House Speaker.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, is clearly in trouble. But if GOP challengers also knock off two or three other Democratic incumbents -- the most likely would be Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, Bill Luther of Minnesota, Phil Kline of Kansas, or Cal Dooley of California -- then 2000 could turn out to be a pretty good year for the Republicans.

The Senate

Over in the Senate, only 15 of the 34 seats up this year are worth watching. Control of that body, however, is likely to boil down to just five states.

The Democrats' chances would improve dramatically if they hold their own seat in Virginia. Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb has trailed former Republican Gov. George Allen in virtually all polls, but the race is close.

If Republican Allen wins in Virginia, Democratic challengers must sweep the other four contests, each of which includes a GOP incumbent. Unless they beat John Ashcroft of Missouri, Conrad Burns of Montana, Slade Gorton of Washington or Spencer Abraham of Michigan, they cannot net the five seats they need to get to 51 seats in the Senate. If they win all four, however, they are likely to retake the Senate for the first time since the 1994 elections.



Monday, November 6, 2000


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