What was Bill Clinton doing campaigning in Alabama last week? It was the first time the President had visited since he took office, and by all normal electoral calculations, both he and Republican Bob Dole should be giving Alabama a wide berth. It should be comfortably in the Republican column and the candidates should be fighting for swing areas. But Dole’s woes give Clinton a fair shot at winning even Alabama. More importantly, Clinton’s lead means he was able to take time to give Democratic congressional candidates there a boost. The battle for the White House may be all but over, but both sides know that another crucial election is still to be decided: the fight for control of Congress.
That contest is much, much closer. Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, and now hold 235 of its 435 seats. In the Senate, where 34 seats are up for grabs on Nov. 5, the Republicans enjoy a 53-47 advantage. Almost all independent analysts believe the GOP will keep its Senate majority, and perhaps even add one or two seats there. But the House is much harder to call. James Thurber, professor of government at American University in Washington and a leading scholar of the Congress, calculates that 85 of the 435 House seats are truly competitive—they were decided by margins of 10 per cent or less in 1994. In addition, there are 48 “open” seats, where no incumbent is running.
The problem for the Democrats is that many of those competitive and open seats are in the South, where Republicans have an advantage with conservative voters. That explains Clinton’s extra efforts in such states as Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. His lead over Dole may even work against the Democrats: some Republicans—effectively conceding the White House to Clinton—are openly arguing that voters should check the President’s power by keeping the House out of Democratic control. And they have tried to scare conservative voters by pointing out that the congressional seniority system means that some of the most liberal Democrats, including Charles Rangel of New York’s Harlem and Ron Dellums of Oakland, Calif.—both of whom happen to be black—would be in line to chair key House committees if the Democrats retake the House.
There are so many crosscurrents that predictions are risky. Thurber ventures this far: “If I was forced to bet—and you put up the money—I would bet that the House will go Democratic and the Senate will stay Republican.” But it is the powerful Senate, filled with strong and often colorful personalities, that features some of the most intriguing contests. Highlights:
MASSACHUSETTS: In the year’s hottest race, Democratic incumbent John Kerry is locked in titanic combat with the state’s formidable Republican governor, William Weld. Elegant and aloof, Kerry, 52, is a two-term liberal who supports big government programs to help the needy. Rumpled and charismatic, Weld, 51, is a fiscal conservative who has cut state taxes 11 times in the past five years. Both are bright political stars who are likely to be presidential hopefuls in the year 2000. Both, too, are six-feet, four-inches tall, handsome, and from New England blue-blood stock. Weld puts his net worth at nearly $7 million; Kerry is married to ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz, who inherited $1 billion. Yale-educated Kerry has concentrated on foreign policy; Harvard man Weld is known for his domestic agenda. Traditionally, Massachusetts votes Democratic—the other senator is Edward Kennedy—but Weld is highly popular. Although Clinton has a 30point lead in the state, the Kerry-Weld contest is too close to call.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Democrats see South Dakota as their best chance to unseat an incumbent Republican senator. In a state of just 740,000 people who are accustomed to prairie-style political civility, the fight between Senator Larry Pressler, 54, and Democratic congressman Tim Johnson, 49, has been the nastiest in history. Johnson’s ads have picked up on press commentary comparing Pressler, an eccentric and somewhat absentminded Rhodes Scholar and Harvard law graduate, to Forrest Gump. Although Pressler has been in the Senate for nearly 20 years, his achievements are seen as thin even by members of his own party. Johnson has also branded him a puppet of giant corporations and accused him of wanting to destroy Medicare. Pressler hits Johnson as a “taxand-spend” liberal. But the senator has been damaged by revelations that he spent nearly $700,000 over the past five years on expensive travel without proper accounting. Although Johnson claims to be ahead, pundits note that Pressler has a fortune left to spend on last-minute TV advertising that could still save him.
MINNESOTA: Six years ago, Democrat Paul Wellstone, a left-leaning college professor, defeated incumbent Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz in a very close race. This year, Boschwitz, a 65-year-old millionaire businessman, is out for revenge. He made major gains by portraying Wellstone as too liberal, particularly on issues such as crime and welfare; Wellstone even opposed the U.S. offensive during the Persian Gulf War period. But Boschwitz has failed to provide an appealing program of his own—and his attacks have begun to turn off voters in one of the few remaining states where liberal is not a dirty word. The Republicans had targeted 52-year-old Wellstone as the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat. But now insiders believe that Boschwitz could be defeated again—this time by his own overly negative campaign.
NORTH CAROLINA: The heat is on for archconservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and principal author of the controversial HelmsBurton law that punishes foreign companies doing business with Cuba. Challenger Harvey Gantt, a 53-year-old black architect and former Charlotte mayor who lost to Helms in 1990, is running neck and neck with the four-term incumbent. At first, Helms, 75, abandoned his style of past campaigns, which were often meanspirited and racial, and tried to project a kinder, gentler image in a state where an influx of high-tech industry and northern professionals has diluted the conservative base. He also played down his strident opposition to abortion, gay rights and affirmative action. But as the race tightened, Helms turned to attack ads that accuse Gantt of supporting homosexual marriages, which Gantt denies. And he told the Charlotte Observer that he wants to cut money spent on people with AIDS because they have the disease due to their own “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”
SOUTH CAROLINA: At 93, Republican Senator Strom Thurmond is seeking an eighth term in office. If he wins, as expected, he could be in power until he is 100. Already, he is the oldest senator in history, and next year he will take the record for the longest-serving—42 years. Given his age, his health is quite good. But he shambles rather than walks, his hearing is poor and he increasingly gets lost in complex debate. More importantly for voters, however, he continues to shuffle federal contracts, grants, loans and jobs into South Carolina via his chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee; no state gets more pork. His legendary honesty adds to his enduring appeal. And while the Democrats thought they could beat him with 42-year-old Elliott Close, a real estate developer and textile heir who calls for “new ideas and new blood,” polls show Thurmond more than 10 points ahead. The senior senator wants to die in the U.S. Capitol, and South Carolina voters seem prepared to grant that last wish.
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