Democrats in Congress: close but no cigar

A reluctant seer predicts cloudy results in next week's election.

By David Corn

Published October 29, 1996 8:38PM (EST)


forget about the presidential race. Bob Dole is done. Consequently, the political classes — pundits, reporters, handicappers, consultants — have turned breathlessly to the race for Congress, panting over the chances of the Democrats to retake one or both of the houses of Congress.

As a political writer, I make a point of not making electoral predictions. (The above statement about Dole doesn't count as a prediction.) Such speculation only encourages people to think of politics as a sporting event. And I’d rather take the path of principle (Hey, politics is more than a game) and modesty (Who am I to say?) than risk being wrong. But the editors of Salon offered me big bucks — okay, not so big, but enough to buy a new pair of basketball shoes
— to tell you what is going to happen in the House races. But first, before the dubious pay-off, a few observations:

Ask a typical pollee whether she or he is voting for a Democrat or Republican for Congress, and a slight majority says Democrat. That's encouraging to the Democrats, who need a net gain of 19 seats to win back the House (and 3 to tie in the Senate). More good news for the Democrats: 70 of the 235 Republicans in the House are Newt Gingrich-style freshmen, class of '94, many of whom won in very tight races, and often in congressional districts considered Democratic turf. Add in the fact that Gingrich has higher negative ratings than Freddy Krueger, and the conventional wisdom that a Clinton win should be of help to the Democrats. Republican number-crunchers say that if Clinton ends up beating Dole by more than 13 points, the House is gone.

But all is not lost for Gingrich, who has declared he will not stick around as minority leader if Republicans lose control of the House. (How’s that for incentive?) Though a majority of likely voters tell pollsters they are pulling the lever for Clinton, a majority also say they do not trust the man. That is why the Republicans have switched to Plan B, a triage strategy that acknowledges the inevitability of a Clinton victory while urging the public to re-elect a Republican Congress, so as not to hand Clinton the Untrusted a "blank check."

An utter humiliation for Dole, this strategy might have some legs, as Clinton himself knows. While occasionally talking up local Democrats on the stump and in national forums, such as the debates, he conspicuously does not urge voters to force out the Republicans. And the coming Clinton victory has less the feel of a tide than of water finding the path of least resistance. If one examines particulars, the prospects for the Democrats seem less glorious.

To begin with, a number of House Democrats decided to throw in the towel after the party was swamped in 1994. Little did they realize how quick the lectern could turn. There are 30 open Democratic seats up for grabs, some of which — particularly in the South — the Democrats will have a tough time retaining.

At the same time, some Republican freshmen actually have learned from their mistakes. In districts across the country, onetime Republican revolutionaries are now asserting a new-found appreciation for bipartisan cooperation. Take Rep. Rick White, a freshman Republican from the suburbs of Seattle. Meeting with editors of a local newspaper last week, the former corporate attorney confessed that the GOP had overplayed its hand in the budget showdown last Christmas. What's more, with kids in public school, parents of Medicare age and a fondness for hiking Washington state’s mountains, how could he be against education, Medicare and the environment? Since he has a smooth delivery and fine-young-man good looks, White might get away with this reconfiguring and beat back the Democratic challenge.

Then there are the individual idiosyncrasies. Democrat Loretta Sanchez looked to have a good shot at beating Rep. Bob Dornan, the wild conservative of southern California. Then her husband was nabbed — by Dornan’s son! — vandalizing Dornan campaign signs. In Los Angeles, the Republican challenger to Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman is attacking Gingrich and claiming he will vote for Clinton. In Cleveland, Republican Rep. Martin Hoke has compared his Democratic challenger, Dennis Kucinich, to "the vile, historical revisionists who claim the Holocaust never happened." (Kucinich’s crime was defending his decision of 20 years ago not to sell the city’s public utility company when he was mayor.) It’s hard to find a pattern in all this, even less to figure out whether such tactics will help beleaguered Republicans.

So — the envelope please. For the Democrats to win back the House, they must defeat two dozen or so Republican freshmen, retain the seats of retiring Democrats, and defend the handful of Democratic incumbents who are in trouble. It’s not likely they can succeed on all three fronts. My highly qualified prognostication is that the Democrats will pick up seats there but not enough to boot Newt. As for the Senate, where their prospects have improved from the no-chance of a few months ago, I expect the Democrats to hold their 47-seat position and maybe improve it by a seat or two.

But when you call this column up to your screen the night of Nov. 5, please remember: I don’t believe in political predictions.

Quote of the day

Dark horse

"I knew the Internet was thick with libertarians, but I didn't expect this from our readers."

— Jay Harris, publisher of Mother Jones magazine, whose web site poll shows Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party as the clear favorite for President. (From "Clinton? Dole? Hah! Polls Show Harry Browne Is Virtual Shoo-In, in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal)

David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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