GOP Anticipates Senate Gains in '94

Democrats fret that their 0-2 record in Clinton's first year could signal tough political battles ahead

FIVE years ago when Sen. Donald Riegle Jr. (D) of Michigan ran for reelection, he breezed back into office with over 60 percent of the vote. But 1994 won't be so easy for Senator Riegle - or his Democratic colleagues.

Although Democrats hold a 56-to-44 edge in the United States Senate, the political ground has begun to tremble under their feet. Optimistic Republicans have set their sights on taking control of the Senate, perhaps in 1994, certainly by 1996.

Republicans seem on a roll. President Clinton's popularity, while up slightly this month, is still very low, pollsters say. Democratic senators are being pressured by the White House to vote for unpopular tax hikes and painful spending cuts. Public unrest, fed by Ross Perot and Republican critics, remains high.

Two special Senate elections held since Mr. Clinton took office (in Georgia and Texas) offer Democrats no solace. The GOP won them both. Democrats fret that their 0-2 record in Mr. Clinton's first year could be a harbinger of things to come.

Riegle's plight illustrates the Democrats' mounting problems.

Rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for his role in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal, the senator now faces a potentially difficult primary within his own party. Even if he wins, Riegle may be no match for the Republicans after a rough-and-tumble, intraparty brawl.

Now in his 17th year as a senator, Riegle also must buck popular sentiment in a state that last year voted to impose term limits on its politicians. Democratic insiders concede that being a veteran incumbent - once an advantage - can be a burden in this age of Perot-style, throw-'em-out politics.

Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, predicts at least a half-dozen Democratic Senate seats will be vulnerable next year. If Republicans win them all - and hold onto their own - the Senate would be thrown into a 50-50 tie.

Besides Riegle's post, Mr. Cook says seats most at risk include those held by Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona (another Keating Five senator), Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia (who will be challenged by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and retired Lt. Col. Oliver North), Sen. Harlan Mathews of Tennessee (who was appointed after Al Gore Jr. was elected vice president), Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio (who will retire next year), and Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania (whom Republicans will charge with being ineffectiv e).

Cook says Republicans also have a potential shot at toppling 31-year veteran Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and perhaps Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey.

To that list, Republicans would add what they call three "sleeper" races where the GOP could upset Democratic incumbents: Nevada, New Mexico, and North Dakota.

Republicans, long forced to run for Congress while defending their GOP presidents, relish the chance to turn the tables on Democrats, who for years used Ronald Reagan and George Bush as whipping boys.

As one Republican insider says of the coming contest in North Dakota: "Sen. [Kent] Conrad [D] built his career blaming every woe on Ronald Reagan's agricultural policies. That excuse now is gone."

As always, the economy will be a key issue next year, Republican and Democratic strategists say. But this time there will be a new wild card - Mr. Perot's United We Stand America (UWSA) - which could complicate races for both major parties.

Political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia says UWSA could break new ground in the Old Dominion by fielding a US Senate candidate against both the Republican and Democratic nominees.

Perot could also weigh into Senate races as he did in Texas by announcing a last-minute endorsement of one of the major parties' candidates, and tipping a close race.

REPUBLICANS already are preparing for that possibility.

They note that from 20 to 40 contests for the House of Representatives next year could be "close," with just 1,000 to 5,000 votes separating winners from losers.

If Perot throws his organization, Texas-style, behind GOP candidates as he did in Texas last month, it could make a significant impact, Republican planners say. In similar fashion, Perot might successfully tip two or three extremely close Senate races, they suggest.

Any Republican gains could be offset, however, unless the GOP successfully defends virtually all of its 13 seats at stake in the 1994 Senate contest. And some Republican senators are at risk.

Most vulnerable: Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota.

The senator is struggling with a myriad of problems, including an April 1993, indictment on felony charges related to billing the government for rent on a condominium he owns in Minnesota. He is expected to announce whether he will seek reelection by early autumn.

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