Washington — On the eve of Election '86, here's the outlook. The stakes are high: control of the United States Senate.
The race is close: Republicans and Democrats appear to have equal prospects of capturing the Senate majority.
The importance to the White House is tremendous: President Reagan could face two very difficult years on Capitol Hill if the Democrats take over the Senate.
The hazards for the Democrats also are great: A loss this time could clear the way for Republican control of the Senate through the year 2000.
Election '86 has been a campaign without a central focus - until the final days.
Issues have been mostly local. In the Dakotas, the main topic has been farm problems; in Florida, it's been illegal drugs; in Colorado, ``star wars''; in Washington State, the hot subject has been nuclear waste disposal; and in California, it's been the future of Chief Justice Rose Bird of the state Supreme Court.
Then, in the final days, the focus changed. At the last moment, Ronald Reagan threw himself into the fray as if it were his last hurrah. He tried to make tomorrow's vote a referendum on his leadership. He flew from state to state, rallied support for Republicans, laid his prestige on the line, and put a monumental political scare into Democrats.
Bolstered by the President's last-minute effort, Republican hopes grew in hard-fought Senate races like California, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington. Analysts say that an on-the-scene political hug from Mr. Reagan can boost a local candidate's support by 1 to 2 percent, and that may be just enough in several states.
But even the President may be unable to pull out GOP victories in Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina, where prospects look less promising.
Almost lost in the headlines over the Senate races have been the contests for governorships, US House of Representatives, and state legislatures.
Yet the governors' races, especially, could have long-term significance for America's political future. Democrats currently hold a 34-to-16 majority in governorships, one of their largest margins since World War II.
Republicans are expected to pick up a minimum of five seats tomorrow. They may even be able to bring the margin close to 25 to 25. One of the big prizes the GOP seeks is Texas.
But Republicans also have at least an outside chance of capturing two such unlikely states as Alabama and Florida. The largest number of Republican gubernatorial gains could come in the West, in states like New Mexico and Colorado.
All of this should give the GOP a solid base in state government during the 1990 struggles over reapportionment. Eventually, that could lead to larger GOP representation in state legislatures and the US House.
The nation's 435 House races have been the most lackluster this year. Little change is expected in the current balance of power - 253 Democrats, 182 Republicans.
Ordinarily, in the sixth year of a presidential term, the party in the White House loses more than 40 House seats. This year's GOP losses are expected to be closer to 10. The President's popularity helps; so does the moderately good health of the economy, and international peace.
After Tuesday, Republicans will probably proclaim that a loss of only 10 to 15 House seats was a victory; but the loss of even a few seats will be painful because of the already large Democratic margin. Meanwhile, Democrats will no doubt claim a victory, but if they gain only 10 to 15 seats, that will clearly be a substandard performance for the party out of power.
It remains the Senate races, however, which fascinate the experts.
A number of political watchers, such as David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Jerry Hartz of SANE-PAC, say a Democratic takeover would have an immediate impact on the nation's legislative agenda. Some of their conclusions may be a bit wishful, or too pessimistic, but they indicate the direction the country could take. Among the major effects that various insiders predict under Democratic control:
``Star wars is dead.''
``Aid to the Nicaraguan contras will be shot down.''
``Defense spending will be reduced.''
``Social spending will rise.''
``We could get a chemical weapons halt.''
``The President will be left only to confront the Congress, for he will no longer be able to shape the agenda through his Republican majority in the Senate.''
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, a close presidential adviser, says it would be ``purgatory'' for Reagan.
Despite the intercession of the President, the Senate contest in each state eventually comes down to a struggle between the two (or more) contestants. Even in some states where Reagan is popular, the voting population leans Republican, and there is prosperity, the GOP could lose.
The reason: the Democrats have simply put up a better man (or woman).
Edward S. DeBolt, a Republican political consultant and president of the DCM Group, says the No. 1 issue for voters this year is ``honesty and integrity.'' In his surveys, those qualities outscore everything else, from arms control to the economy, when voters are picking their favorite candidates.
For most voters, ``it's not the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Ronald Reagan - it's trust, credibility, confidence that they are looking for. Personal qualities,'' says Mr. DeBolt.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart echoes those views. People want candidates who have integrity and who will not forget the folks back home, Mr. Hart says.
``People are good, and they look for goodness in their politicians,'' DeBolt says. ``Every year people pray they can respect their politicians.''
Unfortunately, many voters are discouraged by what they have seen this year, says DeBolt. The negative ads, the attacks, the bitterness of many Senate races are turnoffs to voters. But that type of campaigning appears to be growing nationwide.
That's one reason voter turnout this year could be extremely low. The level of campaigning has failed to give the public much to vote for.