Campaign '98 Goes Down To Wire

Voters across the nation go to the polls Tuesday to decide which political party will control Congress. Thirty-four Senate seats, all 435 House seats and 36 governorships are at stake in the election.

Some wags are calling it the "year of the other woman," but no national issue or broad election theme has emerged during two months of tough campaigning. Instead, local issues and personalities in a cluster of tight races will determine which party comes out on top.

A new CBS News poll showed that the electorate was almost evenly divided, with 49 percent of likely voters set to cast ballots for the Democrats and 48 percent for the GOP.

Nothing has happened to change the consensus view that the GOP will make modest gains in the House and Senate.

"The fundamentals of the economy and public contentment have overwhelmed everything else," said Gary Jacobson, one of the nation's top academic experts on congressional elections.

Still, happy gas is in short supply in many parts of the country, where fierce fights are ongoing for eight hotly contested Senate seats and about 50 competitive House seats. Democrats and Republicans are also beating each other up in a dozen or so tight gubernatorial elections.

Both parties conducted intense get-out-the-vote drives in the waning hours of the campaign. Turnout is traditionally low in off-year elections, and the outcome of a number of tight races could be decided by the effectiveness of these efforts.

President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky has steadily receded in importance, despite 11th-hour reports that the GOP was about to blanket the nation's airwaves with scandal-stoking TV commercials.

The TV blitz is considerably less than meets the eye. The GOP has prepared three ads that refer to Mr. Clinton's dalliance, but they'll only run in about 30 House districts a few days before the election.

And despite the fact that they target the president's cheatin' ways, the commercials are mainly aimed at Republican loyalists who hate Mr. Clinton with the same kind of fervor good Democrats reserve for Newt Gingrich.

"In a low-turnout race, anything you can do to fire up your base and get them out to vote is a significant plus," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall. "The ads remind people of the president's deception and his reckless behavior."

And while some Democrats expressed outrage at the ads, others were positively philosophical.

"It's like someone who's been good on a diet and then decides late at night, 'Oh, why not have a bag of Dorito's?'" said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman. "The Republicans have been pretty well disciplined over the past few weeks, and they just couldn't resist any longer.">

Both Democrats and Republicans have experimented with ways to exploit the Clinton scandal, but for most candidates the subject matter is about as popular as a Pauly Shore film festival.

That doesn't mean the president's dalliance hasn't damaged the Democrats.

"The scandal robbed the Democrats of whatever chance they had of making historically unique gains in an off-year election," Hickman said.

As the race comes down to the wire, the experts are still predicting modest Republican gains of 4 to 20 seats in the House and 1 to 5 seats in the Senate. Single-digit congressional predictions have become more common in the closing days of the race.

The Republicans, who already hold 32 governorships, are expected to fatten their margin by two or three mansions.

In the Senate, where the Republicans hold a 55-45 advantage, the magic number for the GOP is 60. That's the number of Republican Senators needed to override Democratic filibusters in the Senate. While a gain of five GOP seats is certainly possible, getting there is a stretch.

Only eight of the 34 Senate elections are extremely close. To reach 60, the Republicans would have to hold New York and North Carolina, where GOP incumbents are facing stiff challenges, and grab five of the six remaining seats in California, Wisconsin, Nevada, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Illinois. (Democrats hold five of these. Kentucky is an open seat.)

The nation's top Senate contest is in New York, where veteran GOP incumbent Al D'Amato and Democratic Rep. Chuck Schumer have been happily hitting each other below the belt for months in America's nastiest election. Some analysts see a late voter shift to Schumer, but the race is still a tossup.

Democrats no longer talk about recapturing control of the House, where the GOP holds a narrow 228-206 advantage. (There is one independent.) The party in the White House normally loses seats in an off-year election, even when the president is not an impeachment candidate.

Still, several factors should combine to reduce the number of seats the Democrats may lose:

  • The economy is still prosperous and the nation is at peace, creating an incumbent-friendly environment.
  • President Clinton's approval rating remains high.
  • The GOP has already captured many of the previously vulnerable Democratic congressional seats. Only about 50 races are genuinely competitive.
Mark Gersh, an expert on House elections and a CBS consultant, predicts the Democrats will lose 4-6 House seats.

A race with notable political symbolism is in California's 46th District, where conservative firebrand Bob Dornan ("B-1 Bob") is trying to recapture the Orange County seat he narrowly lost to Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in 1996.

It's the most expensive House election in the country. The two candidates have raised a combined total of $6.4 million - n astonishing amount for a House contest. Much of the moolah has come from liberals and conservatives around the country who either want to keep Dornan out of Congress or send him back.

Of the 36 governorships at stake in the election, 24 are held by Republicans, 11 by Democrats, and one by an independent.

There are governor races in the nation's eight most populous states, and the GOP is expected to win most of these contests. The Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, are favored to corral two of the largest states, Texas and Florida, for the GOP.

Nevertheless, Democrats are running strong in such unlikely places as Alabama and South Carolina, and appear poised to capture the crown jewel of the 1998 election, the California governor's race.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis has taken a 14-point lead state Attorney General Dan Lungren in a recent Field poll. California GOP gubernatorial candidates in recent elections have started behind in the polls and come on strong at the end, but Lungren's campaign appears to be wimping out.

"I think Lungren comes across as a little self-righteous, and that may wear on the voters over the course of a campaign," said congressional expert Jacobson, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego. "People aren't showing up at his rallies. It has all the signs of a campaign that is fading."

The big question as Election Day approaches is whether the voting places will be as sparsely populated as Lungren rallies. There is likely to be a lot riding on the preferences of a relatively small group of politically active citizens.

People who go to the polls just to show support for a Democratic congressman who got them a new community center are going to morph into anti-impeachment voters. Republicans who think they're voting for lower taxes will inevitably be catalogued as Clinton haters. All politics might be local, but this year, there are many who will be putting a national spin on the outcome.

Written By Dan Collins ©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved