The 1998 Elections: a Symposium: A Perspective on the 1998 Elections

Mickey Craig

October 1, 1998

Late in 1997 many pundits opined that there was a good chance that the Democrats would recapture the House of Representatives in the 1998 elections. Indeed, Republicans feared that the Democrats were on the popular side of the issues which were likely to resonate with voters in 1998; such as, a Patients’ Bill of Rights, increased Education funding, the environment, campaign finance reform, tobacco legislation, and using the budget surplus to save Social Security instead of a big tax-cut. Of course, these dynamics changed in January 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky affair exploded on the scene. And then the President, his Cabinet and staff lied to the American people for seven months. Now with the likelihood of impeachment proceedings and calls for his resignation staring the President in the face, the election appears to be a Level-5 Hurricane approaching Democratic candidates running for office this November.

Prior to MonicaGate, the Democrats entertained hopes of gaining the 11 seats they needed to regain the House of Representatives and holding their own in the 34 U.S. Senate races this year. But now Republicans predict that they will gain as many as 25 or 30 seats in the House races and perhaps as many as six seats in the U.S. Senate. If those predictions come true, the Republicans would have just over 250 members in the House and a filibuster proof majority of 61 in the Senate.

In the House of Representatives, incumbents of both parties will be difficult to defeat. Incumbents enjoy huge advantages in fund-raising, non-partisan staff assistance with constituent services, name identification, and credit for pork-barrel spending at home. In recent years, the re-election rate of House incumbents has been as high as 98%. Even in the watershed year of 1994, 90% of incumbents won re-election. It is not surprising then that approximately 80 members of Congress running for re-election face no major party opposition in the November election. Only about 60 of the 435 Congressional seats offer genuine competition between the two major party candidates. Most House incumbents face only nominal opposition in the November election.

Nonetheless, many factors favor substantial gains in the House by the Republicans this year. First of all, it is normal for the party which occupies the White House to lose seats in the off-year Congressional elections. Only once in the 20th century (in 1934) has the party which occupied the White House picked-up seats in the off-year Congressional elections. Also, Democrats had a hard time recruiting strong candidates this year. Moreover, Republicans enjoy a substantial advantage in fund-raising. They have raised much more than the Democrats and have much more cash on hand, in the waning weeks of election, to direct to competitive campaigns. Recent polls indicate voter turn-out, always low in the off-year elections, will be more depressed than usual among Democrats, especially among women and minorities. On the Republican side, it appears that there will be an uptake in turn-out among those voters who are especially nauseated by Clinton’s transgressions and maladministration. In r
ecent weeks, the Republican National Committee and the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee have shifted their focus from a top tier of 30 races in which Republican incumbents were considered in danger in the race to a second tier of 30 races in which Democratic incumbents are now considered beatable.

Republicans expect to win big in the approximately 35 open-seats and to knock off a few Democrat incumbents in competitive districts. If there are any big upsets of long-time entrenched incumbents, they are likely to occur on the Democrat side of the ledger, perhaps in states like Michigan and Texas where the Democrats have nominated extraordinarily weak candidates for Governor. This, combined with all the other factors, could endanger long time incumbents such as David Bonior, Democratic Minority Whip from Michigan and Martin Frost, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman.

U.S. Senate races are more competitive than House races. In the 34 Senate races, there are four open seats and 30 incumbents running for re-election. Of the four open seats, three are held by Democrats. In Ohio, Republican Governor George Voinovich holds a solid lead and will take Democrat John Glenn’s old seat. In Kentucky, former Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning appears headed to a Republican victory in Democrat Wendell Ford’s old seat. Polls show Arkansas Democrat Dale Bumpers’ old seat as the most competitive open seat, with former Congresswoman Blanche Lambert-Lincoln leading Republican State Senator Fay Boozman in a close race. The fourth open seat is in Indiana where Republican Dan Coats is retiring. That seat has been conceded to the Democrats and popular former Governor Evan Bayh. Thus far a one or two seat gain for Republicans. Among the 30 Senate incumbents seeking re-election this year, only eight face serious competition and only two are Republicans. One, Lauch Fairclo
th of North Carolina, will probably win due to the Clinton scandals. The other GOP incumbent in danger, Alfonse D’Amato of New York, will face Congressman Charles Schumer who won a convincing victory in the Democratic primary over Geraldine Ferraro. D’Amato knows how to win and this will probably be the nastiest campaign in the nation. The six Democratic Senate incumbents who are in trouble are Carol Mosley-Braun (Illinois), Barbara Boxer (California), Patty Murray (Washington), Harry Reid (Nevada), Fritz Hollings (South Carolina), and Russell Feingold (Wisconsin). If everything breaks the Republicans’ way, they could win all of these seats, including the race in Arkansas. If any safe incumbent faces danger this year, it is Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy will face retired farmer Fred Tuttle, who won the Republican nomination having promised to spend only $16 on his primary campaign. While he spent $200 on the primary, he won and has captured the contemptuous wind bl
owing through American politics this year.

If the Republicans do win big in 1998, it will be clear that this is due less to the voters’ attraction to the Republican message than to voter disgust with the Democrats. Nevertheless, if the GOP does win big in both houses in 1998, it will provide them the opportunity to prove to the American people that they deserve to govern the nation in 2000 and beyond not only from Congress but from the White House as well. It would be nice if the Republicans could turn this genuine and legitimate disgust with the Clinton legacy into a genuine realignment for the sake of Constitutional politics, limited government, and a healthy civil society.

Mickey Craig is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of Political Science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.