Congress Is Up For Grabs

american u.s. flag congress capitol building hill
With only days to go before the election on November 7, majority control of the next Congress may still be up for grabs.

Republicans currently hold a slim majority in the House (222-209, with 2 independents and 2 vacancies) and in the Senate (54-46). While most seats in Congress will probably not change party hands, several races in each chamber remain too close to call. If Democrats can pick up as few as seven seats in the House and five seats in the Senate, they could wrest majority control of Congress from the Republicans.

The Democrats’ best chance to regain majority status appears to be in the House, where approximately two-dozen seats are being vigorously contested. In the Senate, the balance of party control hinges on the outcome of contests in a few key states. States where races are still too close to call include Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Virginia, and Washington. Democrats will likely need to win all of these states to have a chance at reclaiming a majority in the Senate, but could lose one of them and still achieve a 50-50 split.

Complicating matters further for Democrats, the status of two Senate seats may remain in doubt even after the elections. If recently deceased Democratic candidate Mel Carnahan wins in Missouri, Democrats will try to appoint his widow to fill the seat, but Republicans are likely to challenge such an effort. In Connecticut, Joe Lieberman is expected to win reelection to his Senate seat, but if he and Al Gore win the White House, Lieberman’s successor will be appointed by Connecticut’s Republican Governor.

If Republicans manage to hold on in both the House and Senate and George W. Bush wins the presidency, it will be the first time in forty-six years that Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. The last occurrence of unified Republican government was in 1953-54, during Dwight Eisenhower’s first two years as president. Democrats regained control of the House and Senate in the following election.

Often in presidential elections, voter enthusiasm for the winning candidate will translate into extra votes for congressional candidates from the same party, sweeping many of them into office on the new president’s coattails. But given the closeness of this year’s presidential race, such a “coattail” effect is unlikely. As a result, voter turnout will be particularly important. With so many close contests in the House and Senate, the ability of each party to get their voters to the polls will play a large role in deciding the outcome of these congressional races.

Conventional wisdom suggests that higher turnout benefits Democratic candidates, while low turnout elections tend to favor Republicans. With Newt Gingrich gone, a strong economy, and without Bill Clinton on the ballot, Democrats may have a difficult time energizing and turning out their base.

However, the 2000 elections are shaping uto be the closest in decades, not only at the presidential level, but also in key Senate and House races. This could help boost voter turnout in two ways. First, get out the vote efforts are likely to be particularly intense this election, not only by Democratic and Republican Party organizations, but also by outside groups such as the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. Second, because contests are so close this year, many Americans may perceive their vote to worth more than in other recent election cycles. Many of the key battleground states in the presidential race, including Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, also feature tight battles for House and Senate seats, and turnout could play an important role in determining the outcomes in each of these contests.

David R. Jones is assistant professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. He specializes in American politics and behavior, Congress, and methodology. He has published articles about Congress in Political Research Quarterly and The Journal of Legislative Studies.

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